Leadership has so many definitions. I used to liken it to beauty; it is hard to define but easy to recognize. And what makes something beautiful to some is lost on others. Despite the subjectivity of beauty, researchers have discovered cultural and biological factors that play into how we recognize it.
The same goes for leadership. Many leadership styles and theories explain the attributes of an effective leader based on psychological and sociological studies. Still, others rely on the research of cultural norms. Yet, even that statement is too simple. Many more scientific disciplines inform the leadership process. Confused yet?
The problem is that science can only get us so far in the discussion of leadership because – as with many things in life – there is truly an art to it. That is to say that there isn’t a formula for effective leadership.
Formulas are only useful for the predictable: and people are not predictable.
Yes, some things are predictable about humans. We typically refer to these things as being part of “human nature” – a shared way we generally feel, act, and think. Unfortunately, even the idea of human nature is widely disputed among scholars. There always seems to be exceptions to the rules. Not to mention, we will always have gaps in our knowledge about those we lead so even if we did have a formula, we wouldn’t have all the data points we needed to get the “correct answer.”
So, where does that leave us?
A need for an interdisciplinary, nature and nurture, certain and uncertain way of fumbling through leading others. Did I just say “fumbling”? Yes. Ask a leader you admire about their first experiences leading others and see if you don’t hear an element of fumbling in their stories. If you want to be an effective leader, you may want to get comfortable with the idea that it will often be messy and uncomfortable. But just as is true with the messiness and discomfort of parenting, leading others well can be incredibly rewarding.
An effective leader must be able to work within a myriad of tensions. Can he be confident while leaving space for the possibility of being wrong? Can she have high standards while also leaving room for mistakes? Can he be sensitive to others’ emotions while still holding them accountable? Can she maintain flexibility in her approach to accommodate the individual while maintaining the consistency needed for equity?
So how do we do that?
My best answer is a mixture of theory, experience, and self-awareness. Learning theory is the easy part. I got my master’s degree in administrative leadership. I learned a lot of theory. It produces knowledge that can then be applied. Once applied, you gain experience. Experience is the hard part. It teaches you things that the classroom cannot teach. In fact, the 70-20-10 learning and development model suggests that 70 percent of learning takes place through experience, while 20 percent is through relationships and only 10 percent through coursework. But not all experiences are created equal.
The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study that suggests three leadership lessons that experiences teach that are universally important. These lessons are managing direct reports, self-awareness, and executing effectively. The first and last seem fundamental. But does it surprise you that self-awareness is on the list?
Self-awareness is what brings me to the purpose of this blog. I desire to create a space for you to connect current challenges you may be facing with concepts and ideas I have learned both through my training and education, but also through my personal experiences and the experiences of the hundreds of leaders of whom I have learned from. My hope is that through some self-reflection you may find ways to immediately practice these concepts to foster the type of experiences that will lead to growth and development. In the process, you will fumble because leadership is hard. But you will learn and grow if you are willing to try.