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How Bad Leaders Can Become Good Leaders


I’ve long subscribed to the perspective that great leaders are made not born. Sure, some individuals have a few more gifts that lend themselves to leadership, however, for the rest of us, it’s a long, painful apprenticeship. And, mostly, we’re bad at the beginning.

The early-awkward phase of learning to manage—and yes, to lead, since no one wants a manager who cannot lead—is a lot like revisiting those awkward years in middle or high school. Nothing fits, looks, or feels rights, and there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it, but grow-up.

The trick with learning to lead is to find a way to move beyond the obstacle course of doom our organizations place in front of us as some sick, demented test that a great many good people fail:

  • Battlefield promotions of unqualified people and those disinclined to give a rat’s rear about anything other than their situation and paycheck.
  • Spans of control that are definitely not controllable. I’ve lost count of how many first-time managers have described their 24 direct reports.
  • Promoting managers who smile at the newly promoted supervisor and then vanish as if they were Cheshire Cats.
  • Checkbox training instead of sustained learning and development. “Hey, I sent her to a training class. My job is done.”

To all of the senior managers and so-called human resources people that perpetuate one or more of the practices above, your table is ready.

3 Hacks to Help You Move Beyond Bad

I regularly run blended online group and one-on-one leadership development programs, and the following tools and approaches are the ones participants describe as having the most significant impact on accelerating their rise beyond the early-awkward phase.

1. Bring your role to life with your Leadership Charter.

Yeah, that title sounds either lofty or squishy. (Maybe both.) However, here’s the simple logic: the sooner you tune in to what it is you are supposed to do in this role, and the better your team members are tuned in to your role, the faster you start becoming useful. (This works for experienced managers as well.)

Here’s what I have participants do:

  • Have the following group discussion: “At the end of our time working together when we are successful, what will you say that I did?” My regular participants recognize that as Angela’s Question, named after a brilliant team leader who taught us all more about leadership than we taught her.
  • Turn this into a full-fledged brainstorming session about you in your role. Of course, the opposite question is compelling as well, and a good closer: “What didn’t I do that you appreciated?”
  • Use the output to craft a working charter for your role. Give the draft charter back to the team and ask for input. Revise, and hand your Leadership Charter out to your team members and ask them to hold you accountable to it every single day.
  • And then for the rest of your career, look at this charter once every day to help adjust your attitude, align your priorities and serve as your true north as a leader.

Devotees of this tool cite it as a critical factor in their success and growth. They also annually review and refresh the charter as they grow into effective leaders.

2. Bring your leadership values to life.

If I love the Leadership Charter exercise above, I love this one that much more. Of course, the two feed on each other, so no shortcuts. Develop your Leadership Charter first.

Your leadership values are those behaviors and standards you commit to holding yourself and your team members to during your time working together.

They call out and codify the behaviors for working effectively together.

And instead of the happy horse crap versions of corporate values that adorn so many corporate conference room walls with nice words that lack teeth, these words are the oxygen you breathe, words you speak, and behaviors you model daily.

Single out the concept of accountability, and make it part of every discussion, coaching session, team meeting. Commitment is commitment.

Hold yourself to an unimpeachable standard of accountability.

Identify clearly that you expect the group to live up to the potential of a team—the creativity and outcomes of the whole exceed that of the strongest individual—and then work like heck to help that happen.

Make it the obligation of every person to speak frankly and share feedback for and with each other as long as it can be tied to a business issue.

Model the behaviors by both giving and soliciting (and acting upon) feedback about your performance.

Instead of lame, meaningless words about experimentation and innovation, single out these behaviors and the requisite supporting behaviors and visibly and publicly reinforce and reward these behaviors.

Use the same technique as the Leadership Charter for drawing out your Leadership Values.

  • Identify what’s important to you.
  • Ask the team for input.
  • Revised and distribute.
  • Keep them visible.
  • And then get to work living the values.

3. Prepare your attitude daily.

This 3rd hack is one I regularly repeat because it bears repeating. I lose track of it from time-to-time and when the day runs off the rails, it’s often because I didn’t create the right mind-frame for myself.

A few years ago in a workshop program, I noticed the participants engaged in a kind of pre-work ritual that I didn’t quite understand.

Everyone was doing something just a little bit different.

One person was sitting in her car, just staring.

Another walked laps around the building.

And yet another sat quietly in her office, reading.

When I asked later in the day, they said, “Oh, we’re busy preparing our attitudes!”

The group went on to explain a process they had developed as part of their team culture to focus at the beginning of the day on maximizing the value in every encounter.

Wow! What a great habit for all of us.

Try it. It’s free. It’s effective.

Push out the stressors from yesterday or the early morning commute.Don’t focus on your calendar. Instead, spend a few minutes thinking through and committing to being successful with every person and group you encounter, including those that typically induce stress.

Do this, and you’ll be starting the day at a distinct advantage over 98 percent of the people (or more) in the world.

The bottom line for now: We’re mostly all bad at the beginning of our leadership apprenticeships. Vow to spend as little time as possible in this zone. Investing some effort in defining your role, clarifying your values, and preparing your attitude will aid you immeasurably in moving beyond bad

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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