Hal was a new leader over a team of six followers. He committed to his manager that he would be a “learning leader,” and read leadership books to improve his skills. Almost every month in team meetings Hal included a book report on his latest book and the leadership techniques he wanted to put into practice. At first the team was receptive, but after the first few books a pattern emerged. Hal would talk about what he learned and implement the new methods… until he read the newest book on his list, making the previous book’s approach yesterday’s news-pushed aside. The team grew exasperated with Hal’s technique du jour only to have it replaced with a newer model. Even worse, the theory stayed just that, theory. Hal evaluated himself based on his knowledge; the team evaluated him based on his actions. Hal ultimately lost his team leader role; all that theory never making its way to reality.
As of this writing there are over 60,000 leadership books on Amazon. Each author (including me) tries to take a unique spin on some aspect of leadership in hopes of appealing to leaders of all types. Some books have been highly influential (think The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), while others not so much. With so many choices on the market and new ones being released all the time, a leader can get overwhelmed with the number of authors shouting at them about how to be a better leader. Even if a leader narrows his reading list down to just a few books, he is faced with what to do with the concepts the author is peddling. Perhaps it will be a discussion topic at a staff meeting, or the basis of a team-building exercise at an offsite meeting. More often than not, the hot concepts of today stay just that: concepts. Translating leadership concepts into reality that can actually grow a leader’s skills takes deliberate action.
Want to be more intentional about weaving leadership concepts into your leadership fabric? Consider these five take-aways:
Set expectations with yourself and the team – A team deserves to know what to expect from its leader, including the desire to grow leadership skills across the team. Ensure your team knows that you are an active learner and, in the spirit of growing skills across the team, want to do some leadership concept experimentation. It’s particularly important that you treat leadership experiments just like you would any project; have a goal, timeframe, activities, and any accountabilities you expect of the team and yourself.
Actively learn, selectively experiment – I say this as a leadership author myself: authors are looking for provocative ideas that put new spins on leadership in the hopes it will catch fire and sell millions of copies. As a learning leader, it’s your job to filter out concepts that won’t work well in your team and only use those that have a greater likelihood of success. For example, in No Rules Rules, Reed Hastings of Netflix has instilled a culture of minimalist policies that empower employees to do things that many other companies wouldn’t permit. A mid-level leader can’t realistically implement this concept if his or her organization is more policy driven.
Don’t let experiments get in the way of getting work done – At the end of the day the team still has commitments it needs to achieve. Doing leadership concept experiments is certainly fine as a means of growing the skills of a team. However, if it causes team members to burn the midnight oil to get their day job done, then the experiment will have a reduced chance of success. And team members will likely resent the experiment because it creates more work. Be open to the team’s feedback on both the frequency of experiments and how much time team members are expected to dedicate.
Post-mortem the experiments – Once the experiment is complete, conduct a candid assessment of the experiment; what concepts worked well, what didn’t work well, and what concepts (if any) the leader and team agree to continue practicing. It’s perfectly acceptable to get to the end of an experiment and decide none of the techniques will pass muster.
Demonstrate adaptation – As a leader, I’ve gotten all excited about some new leadership concept only to drift back to old behaviors over time. Focus on a small number of leadership improvements (between one and three) and demonstrate through action how you’ve incorporated the improvements. A team will follow its leader’s example. If you change, your team will change; if you go back to your old ways, the team will follow suit.
There’s no shortage of leadership tips and tricks any leader willing to learn can tap into. Just be intentional about what you decide to take on and focus on bringing leadership concepts to reality.