Effective Leadership Skills

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”- Winston Churchill

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s great book, “The Leadership Challenge,” makes the case for the idea that leadership is a learnable skill set, and therefore anyone can be a leader if they learn the skills.  One’s leadership is a habit of mind first of all, and then a habit of behaviors.  “How we think within our selves is how we behave” is a maxim that guides so much of the world of human behavior and interactions.  This idea comes from the Bible (Proverbs 23:7), and it drives cognitive behavior therapy and its therapeutic progeny.  It drives much of the self-help literature and most of the successful practical training programs, including military training.

In discussing the habits of effective leadership it is profitable to begin with the habits of mind, the way we think about ourselves, others, and leadership.  Following are two critical habits of mind necessary for effective leadership.

Self-awareness.  Developing self-awareness is perhaps the most foundational of the habits of mind.   The critical feature of being good at the people skills of effective leadership – and leadership is at its core about people – is the ability to look inward, to think deeply about your behavior and consider how it aligns with your morals, standards and values. Self-awareness is one of the most important qualities you can have as a leader. As the saying goes, “It is wisdom to know others, but it is enlightenment to know one’s self” (Lao Tzu).  When leaders are deficient in self-reflection and self-awareness, they have no capacity for learning from their mistakes or indexing their responses to the emotional situation of others.  In other words, they will grow only with great difficulty, and will lack empathy in their dealings with others.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” –  Carl Jung

What does leadership without self-awareness look like from the outside?

  • Such leaders do have a healthy capacity for growth or self-correction. If you are not aware of your actions and the impact they have on others and on outcomes, there is no basis for personal growth or skill realignment.
  • A lack of self-awareness leads to externalizing problems. In other words, such a leader will not assume responsibility for their errors but will consistently find other people or circumstances on which to pin the blame.
  • People with no self-awareness regularly offend and even wound the people with whom they interact.
  • If one is not aware of the implications of personal actions, they will likely fall behind in the skills and understanding necessary for success.
  • Such people often utilize manipulation skills as a survival scheme because of the problems above and will work to make manipulation pass for leading effectively.

“Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.” – Stephen Covey

Empathy.  A core feature of emotional intelligence (unpacked in a future post – stay tuned), empathy is a critical habit of mind for the successful leader.  Some refer to empathy as a skill, and it does present itself through empathetic skills.  Yet empathetic skills without an empathetic habit of seeing people and understanding their situations can quickly turn into manipulation.  Empathy works only when it is both a habit of mind and a practiced skill for it requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things entirely from the perspective of the other person.

Some have defined empathy as “putting yourself in the shoes of another,” or as being able to identify and understand the emotional frame of the other person.”  While certainly such understandings are in varying degrees important, it does no one any good if we understand a person’s emotional frame yet they do not know we understandIn order for empathy to be present and effective, it must be expressed to the other person.  To be able to comprehend the emotions behind what the other person is expressing, and to accurately reflect that comprehension to the other in a way that demonstrates that we heard their words and their emotions is true empathy.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” – Brene Brown

To say “I know how you feel” is, of course, not empathy; it is rude and insulting.  No one knows how another feels, even if they have experienced remarkably similar circumstances, and say such a thing is to make little the experience of the other.  To explain how we went through a similar experience is just as inappropriate, for that makes the conversation about us, not the other person.  To say anything like “I feel so sorry for you in this” is sympathy but not empathy.  Sympathy is of some value in some situations, but normally is not useful.

Studies have indicated that about half of the work of connecting with another person in a high-concern situation is empathy.  Interestingly, whether empathy is present is determined within the first 30 seconds of an encounter.  Effective leaders will learn to lead into an engagement with empathy.  We do that by responding to what we see and hear in the opening moments.  The tone of voice, the facial expression, the body positioning and attitude may give us what we need to reach out with empathy and start the engagement in the most productive manner possible.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia

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