Little things make the difference. There is broad consensus on the most critical skills leaders need to learn, but there are some less frequently discussed practices that can help build those skills.
When it comes to essential skills that apply to great leaders, whether drawn from the seminal leadership texts or an annual survey of workers and what they desire most in their leaders, both aspiring and mature leaders have a good sense of what they need to know. We expect leaders to have excellent communication skills, strong ethics, humility, emotional intelligence, and more, along with being decent and likeable. We also know of fairly traditional paths leaders can take to acquire these skills. That includes everything from degree programs to professional development workshops and many other formal and informal educational opportunities. The premise that leadership is a lifelong learning journey is one this column frequently promotes. This month I’d like to put the spotlight on a couple of ideas to pursue along that journey that get less attention in the leadership literature.
What Workers Want
Our sense of the skills leaders need is supported by studies like the one published by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. They wanted to learn more about the skills needed by leaders at different levels in the organization. They surveyed over 300,000 bosses, peers, and workers on the skills that have the greatest impact on a leader’s success. The results point to some familiar qualities:
- Inspires and motivates
- Has high integrity and honesty
- Solves problems and gets results
- Builds teams and relationships
- Has technical expertise and develops others
- Champions change
Another way to identify the most important skills leaders need to develop is by asking workers in what ways they find their current leaders lacking. This offers leaders an opportunity to be self-aware by asking which of their behaviors need improvement. In an Interact/Harris Poll over 1,000 workers shared their most offensive leader behavior. Again, the results hardly surprise:
- Failure to recognize employee achievements
- Giving poor or inadequate direction
- Lack of time to meet with staff
- Poor communication skills
- Doesn’t establish a personal connection with workers
As I think about both the good qualities we expect our leaders to have and the bad behaviors that test our support, promoting the good while eliminating the bad is a process supported by a greater commitment to being a reflective leader. It’s within our reach to do so but requires us to set aside time for reflective thinking—and capturing the thoughts that can help us grow as leaders.
How to Reflect and Write
Leaders need to resolve difficult dilemmas. Sometimes they depend on data and try to be as rational as possible. Other times it’s a gut decision. Whatever approach they use, leaders can use reflective thinking to make better decisions and support personal progress as a leader who learns from past situations. Reflective thinking is necessary when a person wants to come to a judgment about a problem or vexing issue (King, P.M.  Learning to make reflective judgments. In M.B.B. Magolda (Ed.) New Directions for Teaching and Learning [p. 16]. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass). A simple way to engage in a reflective activity is to keep a journal—and that’s exactly what Nancy Adler advises leaders to do if they want to get better. Adler gives five steps to follow:
- Buy a notebook to record your thoughts. Adler’s research from consulting with global leaders convinced her that hand writing is a must. Forget about your word processor.
- Commit to reflecting for 15 minutes a day. If that’s too much, start with three minutes and work your way up. My train commute home at the end of the day is a perfect time for reflecting and recording thoughts. Carve out some time for your journal.
- Find a quiet place where there’s minimal distraction. That’s why I always get on the quiet car. You may be perfectly fine reflecting in a café.
- Try to write at the same time each day. Not easy for most of us, but there’s something to be said for a consistent time and spot to get the words flowing.
- Write whatever comes to mind about that day. You’re not writing for anyone but yourself, so be open to getting your stream-of-consciousness thoughts onto paper. Avoid judgment and let it go wherever it does.
Adler has only two rules: Write daily. Keep it to yourself.
Capture it Online
While I favor paper and pen for journaling, there is an online practice I follow that contributes to my regular reflection. Almost daily, I’ll come across a good thought or practice for leadership. Whether it’s a blog post, newspaper article, or journal piece, I want to save it and whatever thoughts or inspirations it triggered. You’ve got your choice of tools for capturing content, but I go with Diigo. Nothing online is permanent, but Diigo is close. I can retrieve content captured years ago. Organizing is simple with whatever tags you want to assign. More importantly, I use the text box to record a few thoughts about that article, such as why it got me thinking and how I think it will be useful to me at a later date. Following Adler’s advice, you can choose to keep your Diigo records, with your reflective thoughts, private. Along with journaling, it’s a good practice that contributes to reflection.
Just Get Started
These are good ideas for getting started, but the hardest part for many leaders is deciding what to write about when it’s time for reflection. Adler recommends trying a trigger question. How are you feeling at the end of your day? What made you feel best about being a leader? Did you have a new idea today? What made you happiest—or perhaps angriest. Just let it out. The highest level of reflection is achieving new knowledge as the outcome of a process of inquiry, where conclusions arrived at are based on evidence, thoughtful interpretation, and compelling understanding of an issue. Not everyone will think of reflecting, writing, and capturing as leadership skills, but I do. It’s unlike those skills we use in a more direct way as we practice leadership, such as good listening or coaching. Think of it as a more foundational skill that allows leaders to learn how to improve at those other practices. As Adler puts it, “Using a journal regularly will give you the courage to see the world differently, to understand the world differently, and to lead in new and needed ways.” What more encouragement do you need?