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Developing the next generation of leaders (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2010

What makes a leader? Is leadership an inherited quality, or can it be created through education, experience, and example? There's no doubt that a few select individuals seem to be naturally endowed with those qualities necessary to become a great leader. However, for the rest of us, is there any hope of becoming an effective leader?

Despite their manifold personality types, all leaders share common characteristics. Some of these common qualities are inherited, while others are learned. According to Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas' research documented in the Harvard Business Review article "Crucibles of Leadership", one inherent quality of a good leader is the ability to cope with, then rise above difficult circumstances. That is, a leader can find meaning beyond immediate obstacles and focus on how to improve himself and his situation for the future. Benchmarks 2006 – A Study of Well-Managed PracticesSM indicates another inherent quality that distinguishes a leader from other individuals is a sense of purpose achieved through a clear vision, passion demonstrated through a positive work ethic, and a focus on how individual and group contributions can change the future. A third inherent quality of leaders is the ability to develop group dynamics. Group development, however, requires the leader to first create a climate of trust and collaboration through genuine care and consistent behavior. Individuals are more willing to make the workplace successful, profitable, and enjoyable when their specific strengths and interests are recognized and used.

The learned attributes common to leaders can be acquired either through formal education or through observing and imitating the example and behavior of another leader. A leader must be able to think quickly and circumspectly. To develop this skill, organization and the ability to focus, as well as accuracy and clarity in work are vital. A leader must also possess some level of influence on those around her, taking into account the affects she has on clients and staff, as well as the reputation and rapport she has within the profession. A leader must also never stop striving. This requires continuous learning and improvement of skills and knowledge, initiating investigation and research both independently and within a group, and taking pride in personal accomplishments and co-workers' accomplishments.

A leader can teach and inspire individuals to become leaders themselves by improving upon and demonstrating the learned attributes discussed earlier, and by implementing the following habits in everyday life. Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams, in their Harvard Business Review article "Is Silence Killing Your Company?" suggest encouragement as a driving force in the shaping of leaders. A leader in the habit of encouraging allows staff members to give the situation at hand their genuine consideration, and lets them know that being wrong is fine as long as they learn from their mistakes. Too often, when a boss solicits ideas from subordinates, fear of failure prevents those team members from suggesting solutions "outside of the box". Encourage staff members, and they'll be more confident to take on additional responsibility.

Clear communication is a difficult, but vital habit for leaders to develop. Kathryn Jeffers, in her educational session "Improving Performance Through Candor and Coaching," details the importance of effective communication. Perhaps the primary communication duty of a leader is to be able to calmly discuss conflict, and resolve it. A leader must be able to present disappointing or unpleasant news in such a way that the recipient can accept the information and move forward while productively implementing the change or behavior required. A leader must understand the idea that everyone interprets information differently, and act accordingly – the duty falls to the communicator to make oneself understood. Without clear communication, a leader is rendered ineffective and will be unable to convey his or her thoughts and ideas.

A third habit necessary to the effectiveness of a leader is the ability to control his or her emotions. Without control, an individual is not a leader but either tyrannical or else easily persuaded to any course of action. A leader, according to the Kathryn Jeffers' research, must be able to take criticism professionally, not personally, and realize that unpleasant feedback has no bearing on one's worth as a person. Feedback is meant to show opportunities for an individual to improve professionally and personally, not to attack self-respect. Demonstrate control in your interaction with your staff members, and they'll follow your lead (and you'll cut down on office drama!).