How to Get Your Leadership License

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What if you could only be a leader in your organization if you first passed a leadership test. Consider something like getting your driver’s license! Imagine this. On your big day, your proud mentor takes you to the Department of Leadership Certification (DLC). You are nervous as your number is called to enter a private booth and take a multiple-choice quiz on topics like emotional intelligence, teamwork, and leading organizations through change. You feel good about how things went, until your assessor calls for you to come and take your practical exam. You are then given a task and a team, and told to deliver results under challenging conditions. All the while, your assessor is scribbling notes on his clipboard about your performance. Hours later, you get your scores back…you’ve done it! You’ve passed your leadership test and earned your license to lead!

Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, as crazy as this may sound, many people out there are waiting for someone to “certify” them as a leader. They may not be formally taking a test; however, they are lingering until an authority deems them “worthy” of handling leadership responsibility. These are the people who tell themselves, “once I get that promotion, then I will be ready to lead.” Or maybe it’s “once I get an M.B.A. from a prestigious institution, that’s when I’ll really start leading.”

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I’ve got a “secret” to share with you…No one can give you permission to lead; it’s a choice you make all by yourself. It doesn’t take a new title. It doesn’t require an advanced degree. However, it does require you to see yourself as a leader. That’s the real magic of getting recognized with a promotion or going through the ceremony of graduating from a credentialed program. These events change how we see ourselves. When leadership becomes a part of your identity, one starts to embrace leadership behaviors more.

So, how do we flip the switch and start to see ourselves as leaders? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Realize You Own the Power – Come on…Really? Yes, really. Recognize that leadership is not about the title and has nothing to do with your credentials. Instead, these things often lend us authority. Yet, authority is given to us whereas leadership is something you do all on your own. If something in your organization must change, begin with yourself and model the change that’s needed. Build your credibility and find others with shared values. Create strength through relational commitments and energize others through your passion. Then, work with authority (or artfully against it) to strategize outcomes and appropriate actions to bring about a new reality. Voila, you just led a movement. Not because someone authorized you to do so, rather because you chose to put in the work.
  2. Practice Your Confidence – So why don’t more people put in the work required to lead? It’s a combination of a few things. First, it’s easier to not exercise leadership, and many just don’t have the energy or determination within them. They would rather someone just do it for them. The second most common reason is people are afraid they might fail. They say to themselves; “what if I put myself out there and nobody follows?” or “do I really have what it takes to make a difference?” There is only one way to know—give it a try. You build your confidence to lead by doing. Note also that it’s often in failure we learn our greatest leadership lessons. Every time you step into the arena, you are building your leadership skills, and in the process, you gain confidence.
  3. Be a Student of Leadership – The best leaders are insatiably curious and committed to life-long learning. They consistently pursue new knowledge and diverse perspectives on leadership. They read leadership books not only to gain fresh insights, but also to form their own opinions on what will work for them personally. They also try to surround themselves with other leaders and observe their behavior. Finally, they commit to their professional development. Whether it be signing up for a new training or working with an Executive Coach, they prepare themselves for the challenges of leadership.

If you hadn’t already bought into your own power to exhibit leadership, I hope this article has helped you to see things differently. If you know someone who has real potential to lead, yet hasn’t created that identity for themselves, please share this with them. With so many challenges today, the world need more leaders. Thankfully, we don’t have to get a license to do so; we just need to choose to lead.

(David understands how effective leadership generates success. A U.S. Army combat veteran with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Leader Growth Group, a firm dedicated to creating self-aware leaders who inspire more engaged and productive workplaces.)

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all of this content is prohibited without the authorized consent of the author.

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The Key to Your Future Leadership

Hand the Keys

“Do you know anything about starting a vehicle?” An older women’s voice called out from across the post office parking lot. “Uhhhhmmm yes, a little” I replied, not wanting to admit that I am not the most mechanically gifted individual.

As I walked over to the women’s vehicle to help, I witnessed a parade of older gentlemen standing around with puzzled looks on their faces. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked….”Is it turning over?” “It just won’t start” said a man sitting in the driver’s seat. We’ve tried everything!” “It’s a rental” cried another man, followed by “it’s these keys…they don’t work!”

He then handed me his set of “car keys” that were admittedly unlike most car keys I am familiar with. They were the newer kind, no metal key to be found, just a plastic mechanism that is inserted where a traditional key might fit.  I placed the key fob into it’s not so obvious receptor and turned the ignition. Walla! The engine came roaring to life to the amazement of the senior crowd huddled around me. “Thank you!” cried the woman. “You have no idea how long we have been stranded here!” Feeling somewhat like a hero, I responded with “No problem at all; have a wonderful day” and then walked back to my vehicle.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, it dawned on me. Oh No! That’s going to be me one day! There will come a time when the world around me has changed to such an extent, that I no longer will be able to identify what I don’t know. Sure, I have my current blind spots, yet I do a decent enough job of actively seeking them out and recognizing where I am consciously incompetent. This is different though. Like the elderly people who couldn’t see the car “key” in their hands (no matter how they tried), there will come a day where I will have done things a certain way for so long, that my realm of possibilities will be limited. This will hamper my problem solving abilities, and thus, likely inhibit my ability to lead a team, much less an organization.

This same dynamic is unfolding everyday throughout businesses globally. The speed of change is so rapid that product/service relevance is often fleeting and any chance of sustained market domination is mostly a pipe dream. In fact, “Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).”¹ Why has there been such turnover? While there are many factors that led to each of these company’s demise, I believe there is likely one overarching theme among them all…insufficient innovation stemming from poor succession planning and training.

Innovation is often a young man’s game — the result of abundant energy, a fresh set of eyes, and driving ambition. Thus, if organizations desire greater innovation, it makes sense they would purposefully empower the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, many organizational bureaucracies make it hard for bright young minds to wield any real power. While it is the Millennial who is likely more in touch with the current technology and latest trends, it is still the Boomer or Gen X’er who is making the strategic decisions. Moreover, it’s my experience that companies invest very little (comparatively) in the next generation of leaders versus focusing on the development of the current crop of executives. Many HR Departments balk at the idea of training an entire front line management team in leadership fundamentals, and instead see greater value in focusing those resources on services like senior executive coaching. As a result, it’s the ambitious Millennial manager (now averaging 4 or more direct reports²) who finds herself struggling to lead effectively. With upwards of 75% of the workforce projected to be Millennials by 2030, here are a few ways you can prepare your organization now for the inevitable transition of leadership ahead.

1. Train Managers to be Leaders Early in their Career – Most companies consider leadership fundamentals to either be “a given” or something to be learned on the job over time. Yet, I’ve been privy to work with some outstanding companies that saw the value in training their frontline managers with robust leadership development programs and have witnessed the results of doing so firsthand. It’s about identity. Formal title or position may give someone authority to manage, but learning to lead is a different set of skills. A well designed program (that’s aligned with the organization’s culture) gives the new manager license to try out new behaviors that inspire. Then, by the time they are in a middle management role, they are well practiced at creating an engaged team and they can focus on more complex skill-sets like cross-functional networking and influencing without authority.

2. Coach to the Middle – Why wait until someone is an “executive” to enroll them in executive coaching? I understand there are often budget constraints and most companies don’t have the resources to provide everyone with coaching, yet my experience is that even middle managers identified as “high potentials” are rarely given the opportunity to work with an executive coach. This is puzzling because one-to-one leadership coaching is the single greatest way to increase a person’s leadership capacity. In addition, a 2011 “global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.”³ Setting aside coaching dollars for the next generation of executives just makes sense (plus there are plenty of talented executive coaches willing to work for less than “executive” fees)

3. Create a Culture of Coaching – Speaking of coaching…External executive coaches can do wonderful things for your organization, but training your management team to be great internal coaches is even better. When senior leaders have deep industry experience, an existing positive relationship, and sound coaching skills — young leaders flourish in their development. Yet, many Boomers and Gen X’rs grew up at a time when the skills of professional coaching were still being identified and developed. They may understand giving feedback, performance counseling and mentorship. Yet, the competencies of deep listening vs. offering advice, asking powerful questions that encourage new perspectives, and promoting action and accountability are often foreign to them. All is not lost though. With just a few training workshops and some practice, most senior leaders pick up on these skill-sets quickly.