Leaders Learn from Being a Leader

6 min read

The leadership issues faced by everyday leaders are persona, and bound up with their specific situations. Thus, it’s impossible to lay down infallible rules (either for becoming a leader or for managing in that position). That would miss the subtlety and spontaneity of how each of us may be required to respond. It would miss the jerry-built nature of leadership on a small scale, where we accomplish what we can and then think up new, possibly more productive strategies that utilize the resources at hand. So, I favor broad, individually adaptable principles for coping with challenges as they arise— that is, as we evolve into a leadership role and adapt as we go.

From this perspective, everyday leadership is situational, a way of managing challenges so that they do not prevent us from reaching a goal that has not been unduly compromised. Apart from conforming to some basic principles (“I will always treat my colleagues fairly,” “I will always be honest”), we may be required to change course too often for one overarching approach to govern how we proceed.

I’ve been down this unmarked road before. When I wrote a book on happiness, I argued that no one can tell anyone how to be happy. That is, each of us finds our own way, based on the circumstances of our lives. A similar principle applies to everyday leadership, since it’s futile to lay down managerial rules for the unique challenges that everyday leaders face.

What does help, however, is to learn from how others, in similar circumstances, navigated their own challenges. We can study how ordinary people (at least in terms of their status) managed to step up and lead. Their approaches can be adapted as need be, recognizing that every approach to leadership must change in response to the demands of their situation.

However, I think that certain general, adaptable principles can inform our understanding of effective leadership. Perhaps the most important is that leaders are in constant negotiation with the led (and with those whom they seek to lead). A leader cannot be effective absent loyalty from the people they lead, and— to earn it and keep it—they must reassure such people that there are benefits from the relationship and that the project is worthwhile. This may require compromise, so that everyone tangibly experiences the benefit.

Viewed in this light, leadership is an exercise in building relationships. Most challenges are too big (even on the reduced scale of everyday leadership) for one person to manage single-handedly. Leaders will need a team, and teams need to feel that they have the leader’s support. So, even as circumstances evolve, no leader can stand apart, either from the troops or from the network of people on whom they rely for advice, expertise, and material support.

Another principle I want to cite is the need for empathy. A leader must never forget that they lead real people, with their own needs, interests, and, yes, challenges. It is crucial —if one is to gain and keep such people’s trust—to respond to their concerns. Strategically, a leader must understand such concerns so they can respond in ways that allow people to feel like more than just cogs in a machine. Again, compromise may be necessary. But people will likely require less if they feel that you care about them, that you take them into account as you move ahead.

Compromise is the result of flexibility. So, while leaders should be determined, they should never be rigid. They should listen and weigh options. Sometimes they must listen to themselves, as they debate internally their various possible courses of action. I pair flexibility with determination, since plowing ahead with a leadership initiative can fail without accepting some likely redirection. In the un-lonely world of the leader, flexibility may become the defining M.O. It is the foundation of communication and collaboration.

In my discussion so far, character traits have segued into ways of responding to practical challenges. This is because they are hardly separable. An everyday leader must empathize to appreciate constituents’ needs, and compromise accordingly. They should be flexible in order to work with teams they rely on. A leader develops useful character traits so that their actions do not seem forced —a matter of expedience rather than genuine concern. While some leaders play a good game (it’s all they’re capable of), most literally work on themselves, learning to think like a leader as if that were their natural inclination.

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In this vein, another principle I want to cite is that leaders always learn as they go, never discarding useful insights—even where these result from failure. They become more sensitive, literally more conscious of themselves as leaders. Being a leader is never static, even with your title on the door. Learning how to lead (in context with the demands of one’s own situation) is part of leading. Picking up the pieces and starting over is never a waste of time, but just an aspect of learning. We can learn as much from failure as from success, sometimes more.

Of course, I could cite other leadership principles, like the need for self-discipline and a willingness to acknowledge responsibility (even when things don’t turn out well). I could mention that leaders must know how to communicate and collaborate. But these skills are straightforward, and I wanted to highlight here (i.e., right up front) those that are more nuanced. They are foundational to an everyday leader’s success.

So, my larger point is that leaders do not merely bring to the task the skills that they have. They enhance these skills and develop new ones. The process—and it is a process—calls for a high degree of continued self-awareness, an ability to take stock of oneself in a situation as the situation changes.

You should look at yourself honestly and register people’s responses. You should take account of those responses. When a client asks me, “How do I become a leader?” I say that you have to live in a world of two-way mirrors. You look out at people looking in and, when you see how they react, you either keep on keeping on or change accordingly. Leadership is a dynamic process where leading and becoming a leader are inseparable.

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