Anytime I train professionals in leadership, I will always get a handful of questions during the course that start something like this: “What do you do if your team leader is not …” or “What do you do if you manager is not …” The dot-dot-dot portion is some form of “not demonstrating effective leadership behaviors” with examples that include: not communicating effectively, being too controlling, always late for our one-on-ones, not getting input from the team members when making decisions, not addressing performance behaviors of specific individuals … and the list goes on. Simply stated the question generally is “What do you do if your leader isn’t really a good leader?”
I try to do the best I can to give guidance or advice that ranges from things as simple as “set up a feedback session with them” to sometimes as extreme as “look for another job”. I can’t give a one-size-fits-all solution as every situation is different. And, in a few cases it may be that the person asking may bear some of the blame or perhaps is only giving their side of the story. But I don’t doubt most of them as I’ve seen enough poor leadership over the years. The question still remains: “Why do many leaders stop investing in their own leadership development once they achieve some success (like a promotion)?”
One possible answer to the question is that they get too busy and don’t feel they have the time to devote to work at being a better leader. Another is that they are blinded by their own success … “Hey, what I’m doing has worked so far so why change?”
I believe leadership is like any craft or pursuit … you can never truly master it but you can get better and better if you work at it. Look at anyone who is recognized as being one of the best in their field or endeavor and I assure you that they have and continue to work tirelessly at their craft. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers.) Unfortunately, I see many people who either don’t see leadership as an endeavor or simply stop trying to become better at it. Remember Vince Lombardi’s quote: “Leaders are not born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”
Let me share a story that I hope will inspire all the assigned and emergent leaders out there to keep investing in their own development. When we started the leadership program back in 2009 at Eli Lilly and Company, one aspect of the program was to have internal and external speakers talk to all of our statisticians about leadership. The goal was to give them different perspectives from leaders and as a reminder that they all need to keep developing as leaders. In 2011, we were lucky enough to get Brad Stevens to come and talk to our statisticians. Stevens is now the head coach of the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association. At that time he was the head basketball coach at Butler University and had just led his team to consecutive appearances in the NCAA division 1 championship.
During his talk, Stevens shared a story that served as a lesson to him about always becoming better at your craft. He was giving a presentation at a coaches meeting back in 2007. Sitting in the first row was Billy Donovan, the head basketball coach at the University of Florida who had just led his team to consecutive NCAA Division 1 championships. Stevens noticed that Donovan was ferociously taking notes as he spoke. Stevens thought “What could I possibly be saying that Billy Donovan doesn’t know and finds helpful? He just won consecutive championships!” Stevens later realized that was probably the reason – that Donovan was a true student of the game of basketball and looked at every opportunity as a way of gaining knowledge or insights that would help him be a better leader of his team.
I usually don’t get many arguments about the importance of developing one’s leadership. The problem is that many feel that they’ve got it figured out and it’s that other person who needs to be better. The simple lesson – If you are not working to get better, you are probably getting worse. The next time one of your peers, colleagues or employees asks about how they can be a better leader, ask yourself the same question.