Opportunities abound for professionals to lead, especially those with the interest and motivation to do so. Leadership is often associated with management roles and these days it is largely true that to be a good manager you also need to be an effective leader. But leadership and management are not the same and there are many ways in which professionals can be called upon to lead without being in formal management roles. For example, turning innovative ideas into practical projects, engaging multiple stakeholders to develop new ways of working and effecting organisational change all call for leadership by professionals willing and interested to influence others without necessarily having line management authority.
Whenever you are in a position where others look to you for inspiration about how a particular challenge can be met and guidance about how they can contribute, then you have a leadership opportunity. Whether or not you have line management responsibility for the people involved, the likelihood of your being effective as leader is significantly increased when you have taken these five preparatory steps:
checked your motivation to lead;
know your leadership style;
assessed your leadership skills;
understood the leadership role; and
evaluated your performance as a leader.
Checking your motivation to lead
A person's motivation to lead is driven by a mix of external factors such as the opportunity for career advancement and internal factors such as passion for a particular cause. It's important to check why you are motivated to lead in any particular situation because effective leadership demands much more than self interest and a ‘big ego' easily gets in the way.
Leadership involves others – your ‘followers'. How you are perceived by those who look to you for leadership is critical to your effectiveness as a leader. Others tend to follow when your integrity is perceived to be strong and allowing you to take the lead is attractive to them.
For example, a person with a strong desire to improve a situation so that others benefit is very differently motivated from the person who is primarily drawn to the work for its potential to strengthen their personal reputation. Effective leaders have genuine interest in others and, whilst their career might be advanced by their leadership work, this is a bi-product not the driving force.
To check your own motivation to lead try asking yourself:
‘What would make me a good choice of leader for this particular situation?'
‘How will I help inspire others to contribute?'
Knowing your leadership style
Leadership takes many different forms and certain approaches to leadership are more appropriate in particular settings than others. For example, whilst a directive leadership style might be the most effective when roles are clearly delineated and time is of the essence – such as in an operating theatre, a more consultative approach is better in other situations – such as when it is important to engage a wide range of stakeholders with differing views about a situation.
Some leaders have the ability to vary their style to suit differing circumstances but generally one style feels more natural and they tend to favour its use. It is important to know your preferred leadership style and the scope for you to vary it so that you can avoid taking on a leadership role calling for a style that does not sit comfortably with you.
To test how well you know your own leadership style ask yourself:
‘What three adjectives best describe my leadership style?'
‘What characterises the sort of situation I feel most able to lead?'
Assessing your leadership skills
Leadership is not the same as management though they are closely related. However strong your management skills such as organising, planning, managing staff and so on, remember that effective leadership calls for well honed ‘soft' skills, in particular:
the ability to influence others to follow your lead;
communication that is as much about what others say and think as it is about what you have to say to them; and
a well-developed capacity for self management.
These days leadership is not just about telling others what to do or how to think – it is about influencing them to see what needs to be done and engaging them in the work. Effective leaders understand human motivation and play their part in inspiring people to follow their lead. For more on how to apply this principle to practice see the Guide Employee involvement and participation.
The communication dimension of effective leadership is as much about listening as it is about communicating your vision about what is possible. Listening enables understanding of others and effective leaders' capacity to influence depends on their ability to understand those who look to them for leadership. When you are assessing your communication skills check that your repertoire of approaches to communication is sufficient.
For example an experienced manager with a local government background secured her first general management role in the community sector. Whilst her written and verbal communication skills had been highly effective in her local government roles she discovered a need for considerable adaptation of her style in the community sector.
Self-management for leaders includes a capacity to be relentless in pursuit of a goal and resilience when the going gets tough. It's about setting an example for others to follow. Knowing yourself and your reactions to people and events helps you develop the empathy with others that is an essential quality of effective leadership.
‘How do I influence others?'
‘What are my communication strengths?'
‘What am I doing to build my capacity for self-management?'
For more about the skills of leadership see the Guide Leading change.
For more about the difference between leadership and management see the article Am I a leader or manager or both?
Understanding the leadership role
Effective leadership calls for clarity about the scope of the leadership role not only for the leader but also for their followers – those who look to you for guidance. Clarity of role is especially important when your leadership role is not associated with line management responsibility.
For example a number of subject matter experts were selected to be ‘change catalysts' in a major IT implementation associated with a government department and a large number of independent community service providers who also depended on the new system. The scope of the change catalyst role was to take the lead in developing users' acceptance of the new system. Their role was not to ‘sell' the benefits of the new system rather it was to encourage colleagues to work through the inevitable implementation challenges. Their role included liaison with line managers to deal with key issues associated with the implementation but the change catalysts had no line management responsibility themselves.
To be sure you are clear about the scope of any leadership role ask yourself the following three questions:
What is to be achieved by this leadership role?
Who are my intended followers?
What should be their contribution to reaching the goal?
Evaluating your performance as a leader
Effective leadership is a journey not a destination. It's important to remember that whatever helped you be effective to date may not be enough to sustain your effectiveness. Bringing a mindset of ‘continuous improvement' to your leadership work helps you build effectiveness for the long term.
Evaluating your performance as a leader should include:
self-assessment of what is going well and how you see areas for improvement in your leadership work;
seeking opportunities to network with and learn from other leaders in your area of professional practice;
extending your network to include leaders in other disciplines;
inviting feedback from people who look to you for leadership;
being relentless in your search for ways to improve your leadership approach; and
becoming adept at the skill of ‘reflective practice' (see the article Reflective practice for managers).
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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