All leaders should continually improve in order to progress in their career. If you aren't growing in your capabilities, and you aren't stretching yourself, then you're either stagnating, or maybe even going backwards. However, if you really want to advance your leadership skills, you'll need to do more than just read a couple of books and attend the annual seminar.
To truly improve as a leader, you need to take a strategic approach to your growth. That means honestly assessing where you are at, mapping out a path to get where you want to go, and later on, reviewing your progress and redefining your goals. It is a cyclical three-step process that should sit at the heart of your continuous professional development.
Below are our top tips on how to improve your leadership skills in three steps.
1. Assess current and previous leadership performance
In any personal growth process, before you dive into action, you need to take the time to clearly understand exactly what it is you want to change. That means assessing your previous performance on leadership tasks and identifying your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots.
Start by looking at specific past situations where you lead people or teams and felt you should have done better. Try to take an objective, third-person viewpoint here. If you were watching the scenario play out on stage, what would be your evaluation?
This can be a tough task. You really have to assess the merit of your specific thoughts and actions: whether you made strong, balanced, decisive decisions, and whether you were able to adapt to the demands of the evolving situation.
By looking at these factors, you can home in on your areas for personal improvement in leadership situations. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:
Did you man manage the team well?
Did you inspire them to go above and beyond?
Did you pay attention to group dynamics, and nudge them towards harmonious performance, and away from dysfunction?
Did you take note of the opinions of all the key stakeholders in the process?
Did you weigh up options, and balance your decision based on risk-reward ratios?
Did you make the decision quickly enough?
Did you recognise changing team circumstances and respond to them?
Did you recognise changing environmental circumstances and respond to them?
Did you adapt your leadership style if you sensed a different approach would be better?
Score yourself out of ten, and come up with a leadership score on these three dimensions. Feel free to come up with other dimensions and questions – the key is to break leadership down into the criteria that matter for your business, and honestly assess yourself.
Find your blind spots
Self-assessment is valuable, but we all have weaknesses that we can't see. We may simply not be aware of them, or perhaps we downplay their importance – either way, it's useful to get outside feedback on your leadership abilities.
Consider putting together a survey for your team members, and ask your superiors to give you whatever constructive feedback they can think of. This 360° review is likely to reveal at least one or two surprising gems. It nearly always adds more than self-assessment alone, even if you are the most emotionally intelligent person in the loop.
Armed with the information from your assessments, you can go about making some changes.
You'll likely have identified one or more automatic habits that aren't serving you well as a leader. They may not be the result of any particular entrenched psychological issue – but rather, they're simply ineffective autopilot responses that you've absorbed over the years.
Perhaps you've learned that you have a have a habit of cutting people off in meetings a little too early, or the way you word certain things in emails rubs people the wrong way.
Awareness of these sub-optimal habits is the key to change. You should implement habit-change sequentially – that is, focus on only one or two habits to change at a time. It takes weeks to make a habit automatic, but once it's "in place", you can largely forget about it.
Changing the stubborn stuff
Some habits, though, are a little harder to shift: they're usually attached to disempowering attitudes or lenses through which you interpret situations. Often, they're situations involving conflict or rejection.
For example: let's say you find yourself pulling away from a team when conflict arises. Shifting this kind of habit successfully takes more than just willpower - it involves re-framing the way you see the situation.
In the above example, the empowering frame would be something like this: conflict situations are much easier to fix early, before they develop into full-blown team breakdowns. By deliberately internalising this new "lens", you can reprogram the way you respond to those situations in future.
Another way to attack stubborn personal issues is with new behavioural cues. For example if you have had trouble shaping a discussion amongst a group of leaders, you could rehearse throwing just one statement of opinion out there at the start of the meeting.
Mentally rehearse the action a few times, and associate it with some positive visualisations of successful outcomes. Just implementing one "snowball" behaviour like this can lead to a dramatic turnaround in the way you perform.
Cues, cognitive re framing and visualisation are three tools that can really supercharge your leadership development.
You already know you need to be reading great books on leadership, and taking the latest training – but couple these with the techniques above for core personal improvement, and you'll be surprised at how quickly you progress.
3. Review and redefine your goals as you progress
After a certain period of time - perhaps three to six months - it's time to review your progress. Revisit the questions you answered in the first stage. Look back at leadership situations that have cropped up since you began the process.
How are you now doing in situations you previously wanted to improve in? You'll probably find that the surface-level habit changes were easy to implement, but you may still be struggling with the deeper issues. That's fine. Change takes time, and it's non-linear. You'll plateau for a while, and then suddenly make breakthroughs. Simply by maintaining awareness of your "trigger" situations, and keeping a clear vision of what a good result looks like, you'll get there sooner or later.
Secondly - take a look at what new situations have arisen where you think you could improve as a leader. You may find that as you go deeper with your process of self-awareness and habit change, you start to come across new leadership dynamics you weren't even aware of at the start. This is a good thing, and reflects your personal growth.
Keep track of what comes up, and apply yourself to fixing the most "dysfunctional" aspects first.
As you go through the process, you'll build familiarity with yourself and the way you respond in different scenarios. Your emotional intelligence will improve, and your ability as a leader will grow exponentially.
Commit to your self-development and your raw leadership skills will grow at a rapid pace. Additionally, that commitment will shine through to your team – and they'll reward you with greater buy-in and compliance for your efforts.
Do you have any other tips on improving leadership skills that you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.
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