Your Road to Leadership: How You Live is How You Lead

Aug. 1, 2017
Paul Strong offers tips for how to improve leadership skills, including breaking bad habits and replacing with effective habits.

The topic of leadership is saturated with everyone’s thoughts on what it should be. There are thousands of books and classes, and an infinite amount of opinions on this subject. I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. In fact, because leadership doesn’t have a single recipe, it is created in many different ways, by many types of people, and accomplishes many different purposes in all types of settings and environments. We could all use more examples of what leadership should be. 

Where people get caught up in trying to develop their leadership skills is not considering the fact that it is a dynamic process. To put the proper term in place for the process of developing this skill, we change the terminology to “exercising leadership.” Taking on this view reminds you of the constant attention leadership development requires. Just as with any skill, whether physical or cognitive, you must learn it, practice it and constantly apply it in order to strengthen your leadership ability.

The process of “learn, practice, apply” takes place in your brain. Your brain is an amazing organ that is said to make billions of decisions per second, most of which are subconscious. The human brain creates patterns and templates of action through the over 100 billion nerve cells. Patterns and templates of action are nothing short of you developing habits and then strengthening them until bundles of habits are formed. When exercising leadership skills, you are developing and strengthening these habits (skills). With enough application, you reach unconscious competence or, more commonly, second nature.

Tying your shoes is second nature to you but, perhaps, being a good listener is not. We can all agree that being a good listener is a skill that is important to have when exercising leadership. If you’re not a good listener, you have developed poor listening skills (habits) over time. It is likely that you have been doing this for so long that you have developed bundles of poor listening habits that have a strong grasp in your brain.

Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. The good thing about those nerve cells in your brain is that not only do they grow and strengthen, but they can also wither away and die. When you abandon a habit for a long enough period of time, the associated nerve cells will weaken. Continued lack of attention to those cells is where they will eventually die off. This is the process of “use it or lose it.” If you were to suddenly lose a couple of fingers, you would be forced to learn a new way to tie your shoes. It would no longer be second nature.

Back to those poor listening skills. Changing habits, whether shoe-tying or listening habits, is accomplished the same way in the brain. Abandon the old and develop the new. The difficult part for most people is the decision to take on this task and stick with it long enough to realize success in developing conscious competence in their good listening skills. 

When a decision is made to make a change, it can be accomplished by developing and reinforcing daily habits and setting specific goals that you put into action to strengthen your leadership development. Character traits that are commonly discussed in leadership books and classes are important, as we all know. But, simply knowing about different character traits won’t do any good without a plan to develop them. Mapping out a course by setting goals will put you on a road of successful personal and professional growth as you exercise your leadership habits.

The great thing about setting leadership development goals is that your opportunities to practice are abundant. Life itself is a leadership laboratory that provides constant opportunities to develop, strengthen or even change habits. You will have failure, so allow it to be a part of the learning process. There will be times of struggle and difficulty, so be patient. Research has shown that increased difficulty or struggle during practice leads to more learning and greater structural change in the brain. None of this happens overnight, just as it took a long time to develop poor listening habits. There is nothing more effective than practice in helping your brain to learn. The bottom line is you have to do the work. Exercising leadership is dynamic, and the process never ends.

The high standards of leadership are what you are trying to achieve, and setting realistic, achievable goals will get you there. Break your goals into bite-sized chunks. Goals shouldn’t be too broad, such as, “I want to be a good leader.” Instead, think about the day-to-day action items that you need to give attention to that will support the habits you want to develop, strengthen or change. These action items are your goals. When you have identified these goals, write them down and put them into your life as constant reminders that they are there and need nurturing. The primary driver of change in your brain is your behavior. By tying each of your goals directly to your behavior, you will give yourself more potential for success. If you’re goal is to improve your listening habits, then ask yourself, “Is my behavior supporting good listening habits?” Evaluating your progress is extremely important, so put yourself in check once in a while to see how you’re doing. Even more important is to get others involved with your goals.

We are very biased about ourselves; it’s human nature. Exercising leadership truly does begin with you taking a very hard look at yourself and identifying the things that make you tick. Break your life into manageable pieces in order to identify what makes you who you are. But remember, this is only step one because of your bias. Enlist the help of people in your life who you trust to give you honest feedback about who you are, how you behave and what you do. I promise, you will be surprised to hear that they have different views of you than you have of yourself. These people are valuable in your success because they can make you aware the moment your behavior fails to support one of your goals. A common mistake people make here is that they enlist the help of people who they know will protect their feelings instead of people who will hold them accountable and give honest feedback.

Going through this process is time-consuming and requires consistency in your efforts. Developing your character is done through your actions, attitude and behavior. Of these three things, your attitude is the foundation for the other two. Your attitude is in place long before your actions and behavior show up. It is a significant driving force behind it all. Check your attitude. If you realize that you need to make an attitude adjustment, then do it. Make the decision and make it happen. You have the power do this as often as you need, but it requires a conscious decision to get it done. If you are willing to put in the hard work that it takes to meet the legitimate needs of others, then you are likely to be successful while exercising leadership. The goal is to affect long-term behavioral change within you so that living your life as a leader becomes second nature. This is how you successfully travel on your road to leadership. 

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