Leadership is one of those concepts, the essence of which can be hard to define. It brings up many questions and sparks a lot of debates in the attempt to figure out what the elements of great leadership are. What does it mean when we hear the phrase “natural-born leader”? Is leadership an innate skill, or can it be learned? Looking for answers to questions like these can be hard, since great leaders do not lead the same way, following strict guidelines or leadership rules.
In fact, if we agree that “leadership is an art, not a science”, we may have an easier time figuring out what leadership really mean in today’s world and what are some of the universal truths, which every aspiring leader may benefit from.
The phrase above comes from professor John Paul Rollert whom we had the pleasure to invite as a guest on the Productivity Mastery Podcast. John Paul teaches classes in leadership, ethics, and politics at Harvard University and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Fascinated by his broad experience and valuable insights that he shared on podcast episode #111, we absolutely needed to extract some learnings and lessons about the real nature of leadership, and leadership traits, and share them with you. Enjoy reading and make sure to listen to the full episode!
1. Leadership is Like Learning to Ride a Bicycle
You might have heard before this parallel between riding a bicycle and leading a team. According to John Paul, both activities have a lot in common. According to him, remembering how we learned to ride a bike when we were little can help us to better grasp the concept of leadership. Learning to do both requires practice, involves making mistakes and inevitably “falling down”, but at the end of the day, the key lesson is that we are only able to learn by doing. Reading about leadership theories in books, listening to podcasts on leadership topics, and educating ourselves about the most crucial and necessary leadership traits can be useful and valuable indeed. Just like reading books about cycling could potentially help us become master cyclists. But like so many other skills, theory without practice is useless and empty, so don’t be afraid to practice and make mistakes since this is the only way to “learn” leadership – and the way we learned to ride our bikes!
2. Keep Your Leadership Image Consistent
As a leader, all eyes are on you, you are constantly “on display” and everyone – your team members, the people that look up to you, and also the ones that criticize you, is observing your actions. Leadership is an example, and people are investing in a particular set image of you. It is an image that you should aim to keep consistent and predictable. As John Paul mentions, our behaviour may vary, and we act in slightly different ways in different moments depending on the situation and the people we are communicating with. But when it comes to leaders and their public life, inconsistent behavior can breed fear and uncertainty throughout the business and in the eyes of your audience (especially your team). The key takeaway from lesson number two is that consistency is a trust builder. As a leader and role model, you need to put in the work and be careful not to break this trust with inconsistent behavior.
3. Focus on The Things You Can Improve
The analogy, which John Paul gave to illustrate the above statement, is one of our favorites! Imagine you decided to play basketball, and you began practicing every day. If you keep playing persistently and keep showing up on the basketball court, after 365 days you would be a much better basketball player than you are today. Practice does indeed make perfect, but as John Paul put it, “practice doesn’t make you LeBron James or Michael Jordan”. And his words should definitely not make you feel discouraged because trying to be LeBron James or Michael Jordan is not the direction you should be aiming for. Instead, you should be comparing your current self to your past self, focusing on what’s within your power to shape and improve your own performance. Leadership, in this line of thought, is no different. Instead of comparing yourself to the greatest leaders in history, you should be aware of your individual strengths and leadership capacity and continuously try to find ways to maximize this capacity. Finding the qualities that you can refine and improve upon and working towards your personal best self, instead of the self of someone, is the certain path to being a better leader.
4. Figure Out How Others View You
The concept of external self-awareness – knowing how the outside world reads you, is essential for good leaders and a part of the leadership path. Figuring out how others view you, and being emotionally mature enough to accept a different viewpoint and feedback, is the only way to find out whether outside opinions are consistent with your own vision of leadership. It is also a way to escape being delusional about yourself and your abilities, and in this way leave room for improvement. Not allowing a big external blind spot to cloud your judgment, but instead trying to view yourself the way others view you, is another lesson we got from John Paul. It can help you correctly identify your strengths and weaknesses and, going back to lesson #3, focus more objectively on the things you can improve.
5. Leaders Focus on Building Strong Teams
“You are not a leader if you don’t have a team.”
This is how John Paul stressed the importance of the leadership of the people-focused approach. Building successful teams by hiring the right people, connecting with them and inspiring them to do great things, and believing in one common purpose and vision is an indelible part of the leadership art. A valuable tip for succeeding in this is managing to create a strong sense of empathy. Empathy will help you to unite people and to better understand their needs, passions, and their way of working and living, which in turn will make it easier for you to align their needs with your personal ones. Having a capacity for empathy, in John Paul’s opinion, is highly beneficial for every good leader.
6. Leading With Patience – The Undervalued Virtue
Patience is a virtue, and although we may find it easy to talk about, it is extremely difficult to practice. Conducting oneself accordingly in situations of distress and challenges is a hard task, and moments like these can set apart true leaders from mediocre ones. The more successful the leader is, the more demands people have, and the more responsibilities and meetings to attend to! Managing to deal with all of this pressure with patience, and managing to retain your composure during crisis, sends a signal that you are not only a good leader, but also a respectful one. Patience is a cornerstone of true leadership, and leading effectively requires you to master this virtue.
7. Leadership is Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea. And That is Okay.
Nobody ever said that being a good leader is an easy job. In fact, the journey is definitely not as romantic, peaceful, and trouble-free as the way it seems when we focus only on the end result. We might see the happy person being in the spotlight or read about the company that became a unicorn, but what we don’t see and experience is the number of work leaders had to put into this endeavor, and the trade-offs they had to endure. The truth is that there are many behavioral and social trade-offs you need to be aware of in order to decide whether leadership is the path you want to take. As we already mentioned in lesson #2 – you are constantly being watched and taken into account.
Coming to the conclusion that the leadership world may not be the right place for you is a powerful achievement of its own. Everyone chooses their own journey, and it is okay if you decide not to get involved in this particular one.
If you found some of those lessons valuable and insightful, make sure to check out the whole episode and benefit from the rest of the hidden gems and leadership advice in Stoyan Yankov’s conversation with John Paul Rollert!