Climbing the Leaderboard: Six ways to take your leadership skills to the next level
Boost your leadership skills from average to excellent
by Alexandria Eldridge
You’ve taken the leadership training seminar … twice. You’ve read every leadership book and advice column you can get your hands on. And no matter what you read or who you talk to, you hear the same things. A leader should be a good communicator, a strategizer, a people person. Blah, blah, blah. You wouldn’t have gotten to where you are without some of those things. But just because you’ve mastered the basics doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement: You just have to venture off the beaten track. Try these six unconventional tips to boost your leadership skills from satisfactory to excellent.
Butt heads during decision-making
Most leaders spend their time resolving conflict, not seeking it. But when you’re the one signing paycheques, there’s a risk decisions can be made based on nothing but warm, fuzzy endorsements from staff looking for a raise. If that’s the case, you’re missing a key ingredient – the naysayers. “You need to be strong enough that you’re seeking opinion, not from somebody that you know is going to be a yes-man … but from somebody you think will probably disagree with you, because you want to know why,” says Kate Chisholm, a senior vice-president at Capital Power. Find a few people outside your organization that have nothing to lose by disagreeing with you and their critiques may help strengthen your reasoning.
Be hard on yourself
To get to your current leadership position, you had to play up your strengths and sell yourself to employers as the best and brightest. But don’t let that attitude carry over past the job interview. Not only can behaving arrogantly turn off your employees, acting this way can cut your own career short as well. Instead of focusing on strengths, it’s time to identify your weaknesses. Don’t worry, everybody has them. The key is knowing what they are and addressing them. Wherever your faults lie, Chisholm says, “either strengthen the weaknesses or avoid situations where the weaknesses are going to come to the fore.” If you’re a terrible public speaker, take lessons or stick to writing memos to your staff.
Write your own (business) epitaph
While it might seem a little morbid to be planning for your own demise, if you feel like your tenure as a leader lacks direction, try writing your own business epitaph. “When you retire from your job or maybe when you complete the next five years of your current job, what is it that you’re going to want others to say about you and the job that you did?” asks Chisholm. Keep it short and specific, and use your epitaph to guide your actions moving forward.
Get rid of the rhetoric
Everybody says leading is all about communication, and while smooth talking may have gotten you to a leadership position, it’s not going to be enough to keep you there. Sooner or later you’ll have to demonstrate you have the know-how to back all those eloquent words. “You have to be in tune with what’s happening in our country and in world economics,” says Carolyn Campbell, associate dean for the department of executive education at the University of Alberta. Start by doing some reading – subscribe to magazines and scholarly journals about your industry, and keep up to date with news and current events. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at the economy or business trends or HR trends or even literature,” Chisholm says. “There is absolutely no knowledge that is wasted.”
Think inside the box
Leaders and employees alike are encouraged to think “outside the box” when developing new products, ideas and ways of doing business. In many ways, thinking creatively is invaluable – without it, we’d probably still be stuck with typewriters and rotary phones in our offices. But there’s also something to be said for thinking inside the box. If you’re new to a leadership position, before you make the tough decisions, “spend the first six months listening and figuring out what’s going on,” says Campbell. And most importantly, don’t go making changes to an organization just for the sake of it.
Look for the bad in people
Every leader has mentors – people you think are excellent and that you try to emulate. You’ve probably read all about the leadership strategies of the most successful – think Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey. But it’s not necessarily the greatest leaders that are the best teachers. Try this: if you’ve ever had a bad boss (and everybody has), use him or her as an example of what not to do as a leader. Whether it’s playing favourites or being too close-minded to hear new ideas, think of the behaviours you hated while you were an employee and actively work against them in your own tenure as leader.