After years of paying your dues and getting into Management, maybe some military service, some semblance of under- or graduate-education about business management, leadership, and even that forced weekend retreat at work where they tried to sell you the six-sigma garble, you’re probably glad you're already such a great leader. Unfortunately, what Organizational Psychologists and researchers of leadership prowess are finding is that - you're not... Well, not statistically. I don't know "you." Sorry.
Yes, what you have probably heard is true; being a good leader is, by in large, about effective communication; effective communication is enhanced with knowledge and experience – the name of your school isn’t experience. Neither is the amount of time, shockingly, that you have been on the job. Leadership ability (or its emergence) is really about very situational-specific attributes that present themselves for folks of any station to respond to. It is not so much your education, your Daddy, your class ring (sorry Knockers), your pedigree, or even that name placard at the door. Leadership reacts to the needs of the people and the times they need it and doesn’t care if they (the Leadership) gets credit for it.
Reading a book called Leadership R Us from the mahogany halls of a library, for example, will not prepare you to start tomorrow as the coach/leader of the All Blacks (of New Zealand Rugby fame), in fact, without the experience and cultural background of the players, you may do more harm and than good and end up in an all black and blue pile in a Wellington alley. You can read all day about Babe Ruth and not know how to field a ball yourself. In an honest eval where you try and look at yourself from outside your office, you may see yourself as having great mentoring and management prowess; you may be able to quote all kinds of amazing men and women of history. But running the show is also about street-cred (the subordinates’ willingness to presuppose one’s intentions with trust and validity) – it's not quotes, class rings, and sheep skin.
The All Blacks example seems a stretch, I know; but we all know an unknown, 5’10”, pudgy American is not going to have any flavor of street-cred waltzing onto a rugby field stocked with six-foot-plus juggernauts. Being the newly assigned leader in an organization is no different. Constantly shifting roles at work and customer/client changing demands means constantly shifting jobs. That is, today’s leaders find themselves, alarmingly often, being the new (the unknown) person charge of an in-place group of SME juggernauts. Think of the Navy JO walking into an Engine Room to “take over” or the MBA-grad Program Manager walking into The Plant to “take over” a process with men 20 years his senior standing there.
Approaching the new team means knowing your strengths and weaknesses as much it does trying to get a decent pass down about theirs. This is where we could all use some improvement. I’m talking about a 180 eval; an honest self-assessment targeted at where you can do better before you even start doing it. The difficulty of doing this well “underscores the biggest problem with self-assessment [which is] positive leniency” (Muchinsky, 2006, p. 237). Many of us think we are better at something than we probably are. See also: Prom dates, High School sports, fashion advice, driving, cooking, etc.
A good leader knows this, and seeks improvement constantly.
Seeing Yourself As You Want To Be Seen
Cohen and Swerdlik (2005) warn that during self-assessment everyone is predisposed to answering the questions as they would like to be, as their ideal self, rather than how they actually are. When asked if they were pious followers of their religion, a gross percentage more answer yes than the actual reports of weekly attendance in local churches support (Santrock, 2008). Simply put, answering questions as one’s ideal self betrays the benefit of the sought after honest examination. Cohen and Swerdlik (2005) further admonish that it is highly unlikely a person rating themselves on leadership, motivation, or ethics would do anything but answer in a way that would attempt to manage impressions (internal and external) by adjusting good and bad responses as needed to put themselves in the best light. Think of the effort you put into the wording of that last evaluation. That is, your needed perception shaping your hope of their observational reality.
When thinking about how we are doing, if we do not ask those around us for affirmation (about the process we’ve created for them) then we are not truly thinking about our leadership (since leadership is more personal for the followers than it is for the leaders dolling it out).
Just You. As you take a step back from your leadership situations to consider how you feel you are doing, in the vacuum of, according to scholars, a self-appreciating mind, how do you know if you are falling victim to positive leniency? Nobody wants to be a poor leader, quite the contrary actually; we all want to be honorable, great, and wise. The challenge for us (all) is that most people (and us) are quite sure they (we) already are. Research tells us that many leaders “have higher opinions of their own performance than others do” (Muchinsky, 2006, p. 237). Walking back to your office after and meeting and thinking, “that went well,” while the dozen men and women behind your back scratch and shake theirs heads, is one way this leniency may become apparent (to them, not you).
Leaders – you will only know if you are doing well if you constantly follow up on the understanding and implementation of your vision with those charged with carrying it out, and yourself. Repeat what you hear from your subordinates and peers in your own terms so that they can affirm or realign what you are thinking.
This aside, there is also fault in our logic when we evaluate ourselves in conjunction with external factors we feel we can or cannot control. When it is going well, you are a hero; when things do not run smoothly, surely something (outside of your control) is causing it to get screwed up. “When we rate ourselves, we tend to not lower our own evaluations if we perceived that any shortcomings in our performance were beyond our control” (Muchinsky, 2006, p. 237). Spoiler alert: we do not give this advantage to others. The logical conclusion here is that the turn of phrase about holding oneself to a higher standard therefore is, as it were, total psychological poppycock.
We have to actually do it, not just say we are.
Start By Looking Around
Imagining the kind of leader you are means knowing where you stand in reference to your organization’s expectations about attitude, personalities, moral and ethical considerations, even social and political bias. Heavy right? No, it simply means look around and see where you stand in the organization, observe the good leaders and learn from the bad leaders too. Don’t close your mind; you can learn quickly from bad leadership; the contrary examples of poor process implication and attitude are immediate; good leadership takes time, character, and the results are not always as abrupt as seeing the arguments, mistrust, and insubordination that bad leaders claim plagues them (of no fault of their own).
In this observation, by identifying the attributes you think of as important at multiple levels of leadership, you should have a conversation (with at least yourself, at best, with others) about not only those attributes you’ve seen but also why they are important at some levels and not at others. This exercise by itself should reveal the previously mentioned point that leadership is about the time and place it is called for. It will also reveal to others that you care about yourself and the organization.
Seeing Your Management and Leadership Potential (as it truly is)
Even allowing for positive leniency, I’d say we are doing pretty well. Reading an article on something as potentially mind numbing as leadership denotes an interest in one’s career and community that already sets you ahead of your peers. But there’s more; can you amalgamate the information from above and below into a working conversation that everyone seems to understand and reply well to? Do people seek you out for advice? Do they trust you enough to question the process and offer alternative solutions? Do you offer the kind of candor in your workplace that allows for criticism? Think about it, if people are afraid to tell you something adverse, how do you know you are getting all the information you need to make critical decisions? Honorable mention: POTUS.
Start with your own assessment. If your self-assessment starts with a list of projects and accomplishments and how amazing you are, how many people you know, and that rubbish, you are assessing management not leadership. Management is about doing things right; if you’ve got a list of accomplishments, you are doing things right.
Leadership, however, is about doing the right thing; if your assessment starts with the people you’ve helped, the lives you’ve changed, the late nights you’ve stay up mentoring and counseling peers and subordinates, you are assessing leadership. With leadership, you are doing the right thing.
Knowing the difference is the first step in having a conversation about how you are doing (what you are doing) and how you can benefit this and any organization.
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Santrock, J. (2008). Life-span development (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Tarley, M. (2002). Leadership development for small organizations. T+D, 56(3), 52-55.