I spent last weekend in Saundersfoot, a small town in Pembrokeshire in South Wales visiting friends. In case you’re not familiar with UK geography, I can tell you that this particular part of South Wales is a long way from many places and takes hours to get there! Travelling along the M4 in Wales brought back many memories for me as it was in that part of the world where I was based for my first management role back in 2003.
I had been out of university for little under a year when the Managing Director I worked for at the time, asked me to move from London to the Southwest to take responsibility for a sales team of seven people and seven million pounds.
It was a turning point in my career and one which probably sent me down a different path to the one which I was on.
At the time I was working in a sales role in central London – a tough place to sell – and although I had done well, I knew I wanted more; and more for me meant being a manager and therefore in my mind, a leader.
I remember the day vividly. Sat in the boss’ office of the Cirencester-based company, he offered me the job and used a phrase which I’ve only really begun to understand the true meaning and importance of in recent years. He said to me:
‘I can’t put you on a course or give you a magic cloak which will make you a good sales manager and a good leader. It’s a choice and a one you will have to make’.
Think of a leader…
When we think of a leader, it’s easy for our mind to drift to famous commercial or political leaders in history, people such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Nelson Mandella… the list could go on.
It’s easy for us to associate the idea of great or inspiring leaders with people from history who have built companies, led countries, founded political movements or championed a cause.
So what’s the problem?
When we think of leaders as being people like this, then it’s easy to think that to be a ‘leader’ that you need to be a CEO, President, Chairman, or a multi-billionaire. It’s easy to think that leadership is something which is only reserved for an elite few; which is granted to you upon accession to the higher echelons of an organisation. It’s easy to think that in order to be a leader, that you must be granted that right by someone – via a particular title or job, or, to quote my old boss, ‘by going on a course or being given a magic cloak’. And so it’s easy to think that without any of these things, that we could never really be a leader.
And that’s a bit of an issue.
Because to be a leader, you don’t need to be ordained, you don’t need authority and you don’t need status. Everyone has the potential to be a leader but it’s something you have to grasp and choose to do.
With this idea in mind, I want to look at three areas which I think are critical to leadership.
Clearly understand your values and be willing and able to articulate them
People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision
John Maxwell, Author, Speaker and Pastor
I watched a presentation a few weeks ago by someone. In it, they talked about the company’s values and how they related to their own values. They told stories about what those values meant to them and they did it in a way which really brought the values to life – in fact, they did it in a way which brought them to life in the minds of people who hadn’t seen that side of them before.
People talk about vision as being really key in leadership but actually, I’d say having a clear set of and well-articulated values is even more important. People want to know where they are headed, of course. But they’ll only follow someone if they believe in the person and to do so, they have to know what that person stands for.
Develop the ability to ask great questions – both of yourself and others
Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers
Voltaire, Writer, Historian and Philosopher
The next time you’re in a meeting or with a group of people, just take the time to sit back and listen to the questions which are being asked. Who is engaged? Who is alert? What sort of questions are they asking? Would you say they were high quality questions or low quality questions and what does that answer tell you?
Asking great questions is one of those skills which we know we should develop but can see it as almost too basic a skill to invest in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The quality of the questions you ask can determine so much; not least the degree of rigor and challenge you place on yourself and others. A very relevant phase: ‘If you’re not happy with the outcomes you’re getting, then ask yourself better questions.’
Invest in your own development
The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born
Warren Bennis, Scholar, Consultant and Author
What was the last course you paid to go on? How many books have you read in the last three months? How much time do you spend each week thinking about you and your development? Take the analogy of money: If you’re willing to invest 10% of your income in savings, shouldn’t you be willing to do at least the same with your time and your own development?
You have to invest in your own development – from the books you read to the courses you go on. These things won’t transform you overnight but broadening your mind to different options and different ways of thinking will contribute to the strengthening of your awareness. Ultimately, the quality of your experience will be directly proportional to your level of awareness.
The mistake I made back in 2003 was thinking that in order to be a leader that you had to wait to be picked; that you needed to wait for a title or a particular role. I always wanted the next step in order to assume a leadership role but what I didn’t realize then is that leadership is a mindset which anyone can adopt.
Are you waiting for a magic cloak, or are you making a choice?