On Becoming A Better Leader

Why do some leaders inspire action from those in their care and other leaders struggle to keep mutiny from occurring?  Why do some leaders engender positive feelings while others give rise to feelings of angst, fear, or worse?  Is it charisma?  Experience? The ability to make others feel at ease?

Even if we can answer questions like those above and we have a sense of why some leaders are “better,” does it even matter?    Is becoming better at being a leader possible?  Or is leadership a trait we are simply born with?  Is it written into our genetic code like the color of our hair or the length of our eyelashes?

I would suggest that we do know why some leaders are better are inspiring others and, further, that what we know can be learned.

First, you and I both can become better leaders by doing the following three things:

  1. Encourage people, not the work.  Focus on the people in your care, not on what they do.  What do you know about their personal and professional dreams?  How can you help them achieve those dreams?  When we encourage (and help) people to live into the best version of themselves, our institutions and organizations also win.   People are inspired when others believe in them and mentor them toward their passions.
  2. Communicate what you believe, not what needs to be done.  When we communicate what we believe (instead of the work that needs to be done), we inspire others.  Why are we really conducting a phone-a-thon?  Because we have participation goals to meet?  Or, because we deeply value our relationships with our alumni and friends?  Which answer is more inspiring?  When we communicate what we believe, figuring out what needs to get done becomes easy.
  3. Remind people regularly that our work is part of a larger cause.  We all know that we aren’t raising money simply so that our institutions can have larger endowments and newer facilities.  We are raising money to transform lives, our communities, and ultimately our world.  But how often do you really talk about this in meetings, during retreats, or even informally.  Part of our job as leaders is to be the CRO – Chief Reminder Officer.  Regularly reminding all those in our care that our work is part of a much larger cause.

When you reflect on these three behaviors of inspirational leaders you quickly see that each of us can get better at these activities through practice.  We can come more sincere and thoughtful questioners.  We can focus our communications on what we believe.  We can become the CRO.  These can be learned behaviors.

The real challenge in becoming a better leaders comes in consistency.  In order to see people become and stay inspired to do outstanding work, we must exhibit these behaviors regularly over time.  It’s not enough to ask people about their dreams during one meeting and never talk about it again for 6 months.  It won’t work to communicate what you believe once and then return to telling people what work needs to be done.  And we must remind people regularly and often that our work is part of a much bigger cause.

In other words, becoming a better leader also requires us to be disciplined and focused.  Which in today’s world of constant interruptions and non-stop communications, may be the most difficult behavior to adopt.

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