Three Best Ways to Develop Leaders

“I am an extreme introvert,” he confessed. “I get tired at the end of a day of seeing people.  I need time alone to re-charge.  A cocktail party is my least favorite thing to do.”  We laughed.

Those who knew him recognized something profound in his statement. The speaker was one of the most charismatic leaders we had ever known.

Some believe that an extroverted personality is a leadership pre-condition.  I disagree.  More importantly, so does Susan Cain, author of the Bestselling book Quiet.

In fact, I have often found senior leaders (like the one above) to be introverts.  Of the three Secretaries of Defense, two Under Secretaries, and four Commanders of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan I have advised, seven of the nine were on the “I” side of the line.

On balance, nature provides certain traits; nurture is how those traits and other characteristics and capacities are developed. So how to cultivate leadership?

First, experience is the great teacher.  There is no substitute for time in the saddle handling difficult, stimulating missions.  Most people learn by doing.  We get various forms of feedback – results from our efforts; formal and informal communications from the boss, peers, co-workers and subordinates; our own observations. The crucible of experience challenges us to learn and adapt and grow.

Experience is also the school of hard knocks.  All leaders go through the trial and error process – that cannot be avoided.  Most would agree that reducing unnecessary pain would be helpful.  To paraphrase Bismarck, any fool can profit from one’s own mistakes, the wise person profits from those of others.

Experience alone can be limiting and potentially imprisoning.  Even the most fortunate among us are only able to cram into a lifetime a finite few experiences.  If experiences occur only in a particular set of environments and challenges, the range of our capacities to deal with the unexpected tends to be narrow. Leaders with limited experiences may be more susceptible to applying conventional wisdom to unconventional problems.  Too often such leaders give proof to the old saw that insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

Experience needs to be enriched and complemented.

Mentors and role models and coaches can be highly effective.  Mentoring is an example of “paying it forward” to the profession and to leaders one has touched along the way.  A good mentor can help us think through problems in different ways or bring to light certain factors we might not have considered completely. Feedback from the organization, even in the best of circumstances, will contain hints of bias and desires to please (or not terribly offend) the boss.  Mentors are generally free from such constraints.  The best ones tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.

We can interact with a mentor.  She can challenge our thinking and we can respond.  He can help us see our blind-spots.  Since our mentors are generally from our own profession, they can provide expert insights and feedback using commonly understood terms and concepts. A potential limitation is that their advice and insight on unique challenges could reflect past norms and conventions rather than fresh ideas.

Study is critical to enrich and expand our perspectives.  This does not simply mean book-smarts.  Study should build leader capital in highly useful ways.  I have found that three broad categories are consistently effective in accelerating a leader’s growth.

Theory and Philosophy.  Leadership deals with the human condition:  how to inspire in people the spirit and act of following; how to create effective organizations.  Various fields of theory and philosophy can help leaders bring out the best in both.  Focus first on the classics.  They are timeless for good reason.  Examine more recent, highly respected works in fields such as psychology, behavioral economics, political science, and business.

History.  Read exceptional works on great historical leaders and organizations.  Find readable, critically acclaimed works that examine both failures and success.  Puff pieces and hatchet-jobs have limited utility.  Historical fiction can offer superb insights as well.

Contemporary perspectives.  Finally, gain the thoughts and insights of contemporary leaders.  Learn from their recent, practical experiences – their mistakes and triumphs.

Building leader capital in ourselves and among the leaders in our organizations is a professional responsibility.  Build it through experience, a network of trusted mentors, and personal study.

Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership which helps Not-for-Profit organizations maximize their impact in conflict zones.  He commanded Paratroopers in combat and served as Senior Advisor to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan.  See his two books on applied combat leadership: Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC