Leadership is personal, again: the truth that can speed up your leadership journey

The best leaders on the planet do not follow a textbook philosophy on leadership but have unique perspectives which set them apart from business-as-usual leaders and accelerate their leadership journeys, says Raman K Attri

Two decades ago, I stepped into the multinational corporate world. I started off as an engineer with a relatively unassuming stance. The first sentence I heard from my manager was ‘You’ve got to display strong leadership skills here.’

He gave me a long list of rules on what leadership was and what it wasn’t; what a leader should or should not do. There were certain undocumented but deeply ingrained expectations as to how I should come across as a leader; what words I should use; what approaches I should adopt; what image I should rely upon, and what communication styles I should adhere to. Everything was ‘type cast’ beforehand.

For several months, these ‘leadership expectations’ continued to haunt me. It appeared like a mystic skill. I felt it was an elite skill which was possessed only by a few ‘gifted’ people. I was intimidated to a point where I was on the verge of quitting that role.

As an expert on ‘speed’, I value the speed with which any skill can be developed. There was something that I felt was inhibiting my pace in acquiring leadership skills.

I was fortunate enough to interact with some of the best leaders on the planet while conducting my research on employee development. I figured out that these leaders did not follow a textbook philosophy on leadership. Rather, they have some unique perspectives which set them apart from business-as-usual leaders and  accelerated their leadership journeys.

As I reflect on my own leadership journey, I realise how poorly leadership skills were presented to me during the early years of my leadership roles.

Have we glamorised leadership skills more than necessary?

Have we typecast it as some sort of elite skill?

Have we made ordinary people think of leadership as something beyond or above them?

Are we teaching the right kind of leadership to our next generation? Or are we turning them into corporate leadership zombies?

Leadership is overrated

The business world has taught many of us some misconceived notions of leadership as if it is all about doing extraordinary things; herding the teams towards a common goal; or showing new visions to people.

Several consultants and authors have invented new buzz words like ‘fierce leadership’, ‘brave leadership’, ‘extreme leadership’, ‘situational leadership’, and ‘self-leadership’. Every day I find a new prefix added to the word leadership in social media or in the title of a new book.

Ironically, these add to the confusion rather than educating people.

The compounding effect of how the concept of leadership is treated by most Business Schools, organisations, authors, and consultants has arguably created an over-glamorised version of leadership.

How many large organisations still measure their employees’ potential purely based on the perceived leadership qualities they display? I bet there are still many.

Career progression is contingent on one’s conventional leadership qualities, in the literal sense. It has been overemphasised as a core requirement by some organisations.

Leadership skills are now treated as if those are the elite skills at the top of the pyramid of professional competence. Unknowingly or knowingly, businesses treat leadership as a penultimate title or milestone employees should reach for. That chase is an endless rat race.

I don’t disagree with the usefulness of leadership skills to business and society at large. It is crucial at every level in an organisation. Every employee needs to be a leader in their own sense. My viewpoint is that leadership skills should be considered to be the base of the competence pyramid. Leadership could be seen as the most foundational skill, rather than an apex skill.

We have made the whole concept of leadership too intimidating for an ordinary person.

Lessons from centuries of history

Have you ever had someone telling you that you need to develop your leadership skills?

If so, you probably felt as if leadership traits are possessed by a few gifted ones. Your conclusion might have made you think you don’t have what it takes to be a leader ­– or that there was a long journey ahead of you.

And then, you make a promise to invest in yourself and shine as an outstanding leader, no matter what it takes. Before you realise it, you find yourself in leadership development programmes, frameworks, and philosophies. You get brainwashed to adopt a ‘taught’ stance on leadership. You hardly have time to discover and identify your own leadership philosophies.

We have overlooked the demonstration of ‘true’ leadership shown by great leaders of history. They shared the common characteristic of being personal about leadership. They were not bound by styles or rules. If we compare the traits of outstanding leaders in history one thing stands out as a common denominator: great leaders both fluid and consistent in behaviours – irrespective of the situation. They stood for their values or what they believed in. They did not seem to act out any leadership style, but it came out to them naturally.

Do we teach students and employees to discover that natural and personal side of leadership?

Leadership is around us

Social media is flooded with idealistic definitions of ‘leader’ and ‘leadership.’ I don’t think leadership can be contained in one typecast meaning or expectation because it is a contextual and situational phenomenon.

Let’s ponder for some situations.

What would you call a parent who provides and supports your family through the tough times and showers you with unconditional care with no expectations? Aren’t they great leaders?

What would you call a teacher who teaches you to navigate through the ambiguities of life? Isn’t he or she a great leader?

What would you call a friend, guiding you on the right path in times of your indecisiveness? Isn’t he or she a great leader?

How often do we take a moment to pause and say, ‘That’s the leadership?

We have been made to think of leadership as something that is found only outside the house; it has been imprinted in our minds that only some front-runners of the society are qualified to be called leaders.

That’s an unfortunate misrepresentation. Before you define leadership, take a hard look the people around you. You would see a different aspect of the concept of leadership. That’s the yardstick you can use to identify yourself as a leader.

Leadership is personal

You are likely to underrate or misread your own leadership traits, through the noise. That’s why I see the most significant challenge to start off a leadership journey is our learned or adopted inability to perceive ourselves as leaders.

That translates to our incapability to identify our own leadership capabilities. If you could start seeing leadership in the basic things of life, you would recognise your innate leadership traits without following any leadership framework. Perhaps you would not need one.

It takes time to realise that leadership exists in every bit of our existence, in the way we interact and work with our surroundings and with ourselves. When you recognise remarkable leadership around you, you will discover a characteristically intentional, dependable, and always present leader inside you, too.

Attaining that level of clarity itself is a challenge. To do so I had to disconnect myself from all the taught leadership expectations set on me to find that ‘person.’Then I had to discover what I value most, cherish most, respect most, and care about most.

You have to see yourself from a personal lens and not a professional lens. I understood that I already had the leadership inside me that I was striving for externally. The moment I understood it, I viewed myself as a great leader and it did not take too long for others to notice that too.

Starting by being personal

I believe that an incredible leadership journey starts with two things: ‘why?’ and ‘what for?’. To develop myself into a leader, I needed to seek clarity about two things:

  1. Clarity about the cause (why?)
  2. Clarity about the goal of the task, project, or the team I was leading (what for?).

‘Why’ is the emotional and sensitive side of you driven by emotions, feelings, passions, and inner voices.

‘What for’ is where you want to go, where you want to take people, your bigger purpose, or the final outcome you expect out of what you are doing.

The distance we travel between ‘why’ and ‘what for’ is the actual journey of leadership. Along that journey, when you stay true to yourself and the society, when you have the intention to do the right thing at the right time for the right cause, you become that influential leader you aspire to be. The leadership you attain so is undaunted, unshakable, and timeless. That leadership is not at the mercy of any leadership development programs.

However, what is right and what is not is contextual. You need to recall the times when you asked this question – What is the right thing to do for your family or friends?

Get into the same frame of mind when you ask these ‘what for’ questions at the workplace – What is the one thing I should care about the most? What’s the right thing to do for my customers? What’s the right thing to do for my business? What’s the right thing to do for my employer? What’s the right thing for you to do for my staff?

Then, ponder on the ‘why’ – the cause for which you want to do it. Should you do it for profit, promotion, happiness, or something that you genuinely care for?

Identify your personal philosophy

It is time to rethink what you mean by leadership and the sources from which you get your leadership inspiration.

When you recognise that leadership is personal, then you can identify your belief system, value system, philosophy, and core preferences in terms of how you interact with people and how you value the hints of leadership in and around you.

No matter what, you need to be who you are because that’s what makes you stand out. The moment you come across as ‘that person,’ you are on the right path to becoming a top-notch leader. While doing so, we become being dependable, reliable, and an always present leader who does the right things for the right cause at the right time. 

Raman K Attri is an author, speaker, and training thought leader. He is a global authority on the science of speed in learning and performance. His mission is to teach leaders and organisations how to attain excellence in a shorter time. A passionate learner, he is a prolific author of 20 books, earned two doctorates and over 100 international credentials. Visit http://ramankattri.com to learn more about his work.

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