We have used this space to talk about leadership many times in the past, and no doubt, will continue to talk about it in the future. It is, after all, a critically important topic. If you go to the business section of a bookstore or a library, you’ll find the shelves are packed with books on leadership. There are endless opinions about the characteristics of a great leader and the components of great leadership. And all this dialogue about leadership stems from one inescapable fact: no organization . . . political, military, civic, business, religious, educational, or any other kind of organization . . . can succeed without it. It’s the glue that holds an organization together and gives it purpose, direction, and energy. Yet despite its enormous importance, most privately held businesses devote little or no resources to developing leadership skills among their managers who are in, or will soon be in, key leadership positions. So collectively, we small business people must believe:
- that leadership skills can’t be taught or learned;
- that a manager with a title automatically has leadership skills; or
- that small businesses can’t afford leadership training.
False, false, and false. For more on this, please continue reading below.
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” ~ Peter Drucker
As we have said, there are thousands upon thousands of quotations on leadership uttered by famous leaders, but Drucker’s is as good as any, so let’s go with his.
The problem with Drucker’s quotation . . . a problem shared by most of the other quotations on leadership . . . is that it implies we already know the “right things” to do. But we don’t. When we’re in uncharted territory, and we come to a fork in the path, which direction is the “right” one for us to choose? This is where leaders really earn their keep, when they must lead the way down a path that is not very well marked. Still, where do these leadership skills come from? Are good leaders born with them?
A few are, but most are not. That is, some people seemingly have good natural instincts that guide them when leadership is required, but they are in the minority. For most of us in the world of small business, particularly those of us who are younger and less experienced, we’re suddenly thrust into leadership situations unprepared, and we just have to figure it out as we go, tripping and stubbing a lot of toes along the way. Unfortunately, some of those trips and stubs can be both costly and damaging to the organization.
This is where training or coaching or mentoring comes in. Before we throw them into the deep end of the pool, we really need to take our up-and-comers who are in line for a leadership role and give them some basic leadership tools to work with. For instance:
- Communication skills. When there’s bad news to be delivered or a dilemma to be solved, how do we do that in a way that enlists the help of our team members and energizes them to want to push forward?
- Building trust. People won’t follow someone they don’t trust, so where do we begin to build that trust?
- Continuous improvement. Great leaders are never satisfied with the status quo. They need to challenge their team to be creative and to innovate ways to do things better/faster/cheaper.
- Building accountability. Leaders need to hold themselves and their team accountable to do the things they’ve promised to do.
- Goal-setting. Improperly set goals can be demotivating to a team. Good leaders need to know how to set goals that are achievable, appropriate, and will have the effect of exciting and energizing his or her team.
- Delegating effectively. It’s difficult to earn a team’s respect if the leader is always doing things that the team members could be doing for themselves. Leaders need to use good delegation practices.
- Resolving conflict. Conflict is necessary, even desirable, in a healthy, high-functioning, energized team. However, the leader must know how to channel that conflict in a useful, productive way.
So yeah, good leadership is more than saying a few motivational words and telling the team to “take that hill.” A lot more. It takes some very specific skills that most of us did not learn while we were still in the womb.
Then how do we train our people in these skills?
Check with junior colleges in your area. Many of them offer courses in basic leadership that are both effective and affordable. Or, it might even be more cost-effective to take a “train the trainer” approach by sending just one of your leadership candidates to the class and let him or her train the others. Or, if you have more experienced members of your staff who are already skilled leaders, ask them to establish mentoring relationships with your up-and-comers. Of course, there are also consultants who offer themselves as leadership coaches, and while that may be the most expensive option, it might also give you the best result.
The point is, if you just throw would-be leaders into the deep end of the pool and let them flounder around trying to figure it all out, they may become discouraged, lose the confidence of the people they’re supposed to lead, and lose an opportunity to play a starring role in your company. Don’t let that happen. Good leaders are just too hard to find. A little training, coaching, or mentoring will do wonders and will pay big dividends.