This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What does it take to be a good leader? Is leadership more of an innate quality or trainable skill? Can everyone become a great leader?
Leadership isn’t an innate quality that a few people have and others don’t. Though many people ask, “Are leaders born or made?” the better question is, “How can I become a better leader tomorrow than I am today?” Ordinary people show outstanding leadership every day, and everyone has the potential to be an effective leader.
Leadership is a learning curve, and you too can become a great leader one day. Below are some tips.
Good Leadership Matters
Leadership has an outsized influence on people’s motivation, effort levels, and willingness to take personal initiative. Employees who work for effective leaders often say those leaders prompted them to achieve more than they thought they were capable of achieving. Studies show that great leaders bring out more than three times the talent and motivation from their teams as do lesser leaders.
So, what does it take to be a good leader? Good leaders have been shown to:
- Create higher-performing teams
- Generate increased sales
- Earn higher customer satisfaction
- More effectively expand operations
- Reduce absenteeism and turnover rates
- More easily recruit talent
Further, exit interviews conducted when employees leave a job reveal that often, people leave a company because they’re unhappy with their relationship with their manager. In fact, around 50% of workers report that they’ve left a job at some point in their careers specifically to get away from a manager.
Leadership Is Local
When people are asked to name the person who represents true leadership to them, they most often name someone close to them—a family member, a teacher, a religious leader, or a manager. They name a celebrity or well-known corporate star far less often.
Leadership role models are local—and this means you. As a manager, parent, teacher, or coach, you’re setting an example for others, and others are paying attention.
Further, in a professional organization, you are the leader who matters most to your own team, not the leaders further up the chain. You have the power to shape their thinking, behavior, and careers.
Leadership Takes Practice
Good leadership is a pattern of behaviors. It’s a specific set of skills that can be learned and strengthened through practice. The biggest obstacle to becoming a better leader is an unwillingness to learn these skills—not everyone is open to the need for growth and change that becoming a better leader entails. But as with any skill, mastering it requires training and effort, and more than anything, learning to be a good leader means going above and beyond what’s required of you.
People often attribute lesser achievement to a lack of inborn talents; more often, mediocrity is due to a lack of effort. Raw talent and high intelligence are poor predictors of success. Typically, high performers have average intelligence—what sets them apart is their willingness to learn and put in the deliberate, purposeful work over many years.
Make learning leadership a habit, incorporated into your daily routine instead of tacked on at the end. Think of it as something you should always be mindful of, not just at occasional retreats or during certain projects.
Leadership Comes With Caveats
As you pursue your goal of becoming a better leader, keep in mind that there are some things that being an excellent leader won’t protect you against.
First, being an outstanding leader won’t protect you entirely from the vagaries of economic cycles. It’s possible that despite your good leadership, you’ll encounter setbacks, such as losing your job or facing fundamental changes in your industry that your organization can’t adapt to.
Effective leadership will make such setbacks less likely, and it will help you navigate them better so that you emerge from them. But there’s no guarantee that your strong leadership will ensure smooth sailing forever.
Going Too Far
Second, if you pursue the Five Principles too vigorously, you can create new problems for yourself:
- While it’s essential that you set an example for others to follow, becoming obsessed with how others see you can make you overly focused on your own values, can close you off to feedback, or can make you concerned more with style than substance.
- As a leader, you need to set a clear vision for others to follow, but a singular focus on one vision can blind you to alternatives and lead you to cling to an outdated strategy longer than you should.
- Challenging the status quo can lead to great leadership, but if you take it to an extreme, you might create unnecessary turmoil and confusion. Change for change’s sake can be demoralizing.
- Collaboration is an essential element of good leadership, but an overreliance on it might indicate a reluctance to take charge. If you delegate power and responsibility too enthusiastically, you might avoid taking charge when needed.
- People perform better when encouraged, but if you constantly worry about who needs to be recognized, you risk turning into a gregarious entertainer. Fun is important, but an obsession with it can distract you from your mission.
Third, becoming a successful leader can lead you into hubris, where you become accustomed to having influence and end up with an exaggerated sense of your importance.
You can avoid excessive pride by adopting an attitude of humility. Accept that you’re human and need other people’s help. This will allow you to stay interested in other people’s ideas and encourage you to seek information and assistance with new projects. It takes courage to admit to yourself that you aren’t always right, that you can’t predict or prepare for every variable, and that you make mistakes—but this type of humility is the hallmark of great leaders because it allows them to continue to grow.
(Shortform note: For a deeper discussion on the traps of leadership and how to avoid them, read our guide to Ego is the Enemy.)
Lead Yourself First
Before you can effectively lead others, you must have a clear understanding of yourself. Leadership growth is essentially a process of self-development.
To be a strong leader, you need a strong internal guidance system. When you have a clear idea of your own values and priorities, you can better evaluate the numerous messages you receive daily, with various (and often conflicting) advice on how to spend your time, what to focus on, and what to choose to do.
Your internal guidance system comes from the lessons you’ve learned from past experiences, challenges, and observations. Examine these lessons closely to ensure that they align with your goals and the values you want to hold. Research shows that reflecting on your experiences every day, even for just a few minutes, can significantly improve your performance. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
- What are my greatest achievements to date, and what drove me to accomplish them?
- What values do I want to guide my actions?
- What do I need to do to improve my skills or those of my team?
- What are my goals for my organization or team for the next 10 years?
- What can I draw upon for courage in the face of challenges?
Lead Through Daily Actions
Of course, leadership is more than learning about yourself—leading is what happens when you put the lessons you take away from your self-reflection into practice.
Nor is leadership about big, grand gestures. Every day you’ll be faced with small, low-level interactions through which you can demonstrate leadership. These might include a conversation with a team member whom you can coach, a time you can listen effectively to a colleague, or a situation where you can show positivity or gratitude. Each of these moments is an opportunity to practice and demonstrate leadership.
Lead Through Love
In the end, the only way to stay motivated in your pursuit of great leadership over the long run is to keep a passion for it alive—to stay “in love” with leading, with people, and with your organization and its purpose. Leadership is far more about the heart than it is about the head.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Leadership Challenge summary:
- A field guide for becoming the kind of leader that other people want to follow
- The five principles of leadership and their associated guidelines
- Why before you can lead others, you must have a clear understanding of yourself