Lessons From The Back Porch

Lessons From The Back Porch

Friday, August 28, 2015

By Dave Roberts

Helping leaders show up in new ways is a theme that runs through everything we do at Brimstone. We believe great leadership is at the heart of successful business transformation. But how does someone become a great leader? It’s a question that a lot of smart people have explored over the last several decades. And there is no shortage of answers that have been offered up.

There are literally tens of thousands of business books on leadership. Magazines and blogs publish articles daily that outline habits shared by great leaders. Researchers study successful companies to identify the qualities that their leaders have in common. Development experts and consultants continually create new frameworks, models, philosophies, and narratives that articulate new perspectives on leadership, based on the changing contexts of doing business.

The only problem is none of these things—including blog posts like this one—will teach you how to become a better leader.

Here’s an example of what I mean: I was working with a group of emerging leaders at a Fortune 100 corporation headquartered in the Midwest. The organization was in the process of transforming both its business and its approach to leadership. We created leadership development plans based on the competencies that the company had identified as important, and we integrated these plans with the processes and tools used by the client’s HR department. Then we sat back to watch the development magic happen. But what we actually witnessed was how our hard work of defining how these people should behave as leaders actually had very little impact.

The problem was, we had given a group of very smart, successful people a list of outcomes, but we didn’t empower them with the actions that would drive those outcomes. Intellectually, they all got the endgame. But what they needed was a roadmap for reaching the destination. So we took a step back to talk about “how” these leaders needed to process the concepts we were teaching so they could put them into action. We took them through some activities around learning how they learn, which revealed that they each had unique approaches for integrating new lessons into their leadership stories. As they turned their attention to their process (as opposed to the outcome), we saw their progress take off.

Over the years, the most skilled leaders I have worked with are ones who have taken the time to explore their personal processes for growing as leaders. They are incredibly conscious of their evolution—how they began, the events that moved them along, the experiences that set them back, the challenges they have overcome, and what capabilities they developed along the way. They have defined their leadership philosophies by reflecting on what they’ve done to move the needle, the things they’ve read that have resonated, and the events and people they’ve observed that left an impression. Most important, these leaders are continually questioning themselves in ways that drive their constant evolution.

While everyone has a unique path to becoming a leader, I believe there are a few things that are “process-critical.” I don’t offer this up as a framework (because there are enough of those out there), but rather as practices that can help anyone accelerate their growth as a leader.

1. Start with very honest self-insight.
There is no single profile that makes good leaders. But there is no good leader who doesn’t know his or her strengths and weaknesses. When you develop the ability to look in the mirror and see both your good qualities and your limitations—and how they play out in different work situations—you’ve arrived at the starting point for your next leap of development.

We do an exercise with our clients called Journey Lines where we ask them to map out the highs and lows in their lives and their careers. What huge mistakes did they make? What impressive wins did they achieve? These experiences are the inflection points in our evolution as leaders. They shape our philosophies around leadership, and fuel our understanding of how we operate both in good times and under stress.

2. Pay attention to what’s going on. 
Think about the last time you were in a meeting with someone you consider a good leader. Were they checking their phone or multitasking? Or were they engaged in the conversation, reading the room, and involving everyone in the dialogue? From politicians to CEOs, good leaders know how to stay in the present and in tune with the action, moment to moment. This focus makes a palpable impression on the people around them, and provides the leader with more opportunities to learn something new from every situation.

3. Look for the important lessons in every situation.
Here’s a mindset that good leaders bring into every experience: everyone has something to teach me. This attitude helps leaders see good thinking for what it is, regardless of the source. And it keeps them focused on uncovering what is important in a situation rather than the politics among the participants. The leaders who are dismissive or bring an “I already know that” mindset to an interaction miss out—both on understanding the nuances of a situation, and in building relationships that they can count on in the future.

4. Find compelling reasons to change.
Improving on a leadership competency (e.g., strategic thinking, team building, etc.) is not a compelling reason to change. It needs to be much more personal. It needs to resonate with the rich and specific language of your business and your career. Great leaders know how to push their own buttons. They know how to challenge themselves in ways that will make them do things differently. It begins with honest self-insight, but is also driven by the context of their work.

One of my clients was known as “the bulldozer” for his ability to quickly drive results. The only problem was that he often left bodies in the wake of his projects, which had earned him a mixed reputation. When he moved to a new group in his organization, he knew that he didn’t want to make a career of being a bulldozer, even though this behavior had earned him high praise with some of his superiors. He saw the limitations of this archetype, so he challenged himself to show up more thoughtfully as a leader. In roughly eight months, he made a 180-degree shift in how he worked with his team. But it all started with his giving himself an honest reason to change.

I’ve noticed that exceptional leaders never appear satisfied with where they are in their evolution—as a leader or as a person. They are almost obsessive about getting better and holding themselves to the highest standards and expectations. While this can definitely be an overused strength if taken to the extreme, good leaders look at the ways the status quo limits them as motivation for making changes.

5. Consciously translate and integrate what you learn.
Reflection is one of the most important and least understood parts of the development process, but all good leaders have something they do to help them synthesize and integrate new lessons into their leadership approach. This could look like riding a bike for 100 miles, talking with a trusted advisor, taking a canoe out onto the lake, or sitting on the back porch as the sun goes down and reflecting on the day with a pen and paper in hand (my personal favorite). To make sense of the tremendous amount of input they receive, good leaders consciously set aside time to let their minds wander, connect the dots, and walk into those happy accidents of thought that feel like sudden revelations. This process allows leaders to imagine new ways of behaving, to prototype conversations or actions in their heads, and to show up to their roles energized by challenges that they’ve set for themselves and others.

6. Take action.
What we all admire in leaders is their ability to act. They are not reluctant to put new ideas and new behaviors into action. The best leaders are explicit when they are trying something new, and they engage the people around them in pressure testing an idea or approach. Putting their thinking at risk gets them away from the idea of perfection, and allows their teams to put their fingerprints on a new concept or approach. The best leaders are always looking for ways to move from the cognitive side of change to the action side. The more they practice this, the more graceful they become in testing out ideas and engaging their teams in the process.

While these practices are by no means comprehensive, they can help you gain clarity about your own process for integrating new lessons into your leadership approach. Without this understanding, competency or development frameworks will make you more conversant in the academic language of leadership, but only marginally more effective as a leader. By understanding “how” you develop, you get in control of your narrative, your philosophy, and your journey as a leader.