What we can learn from great leaders.

What we can learn from great leaders.

Great leaders influence organisations. They influence culture, strategy, and importantly, individuals. Many organisations are made or broken by their leaders and every leader can provide lessons to those who wish to continually develop their leadership skills.

Great leaders appear at every level and stage of a career. They are individuals who make an impact on your peers, your team, your managers, your organisation and yourself.  And they are individuals you can learn from.

Let’s assume you have all of the technical and professional acumen to be great at your job. How do you get from manager, to leader? You need to start your own leadership toolkit. And that toolkit needs to include leaders that you can learn from.

I hear a lot about what we can learn from great leaders mostly in the form of algorithm selected must-reads on Facebook. What are the 10 top habits of a great leader? What are the characteristics of great leaders? After a comprehensive study[1] I know that leaders wake up at 5.30am, exercise, read for 30 minutes and complete a passion project before breakfast. Great for the clickbait but not so great for the applicability.

What this really tells us is that leaders are people. They have habits, personality and passions that work for them. Some of these are extraordinary, some are not. Yet, to become a great leader you need to understand how to take the lessons on offer and actually implement them.

Fundamentally, what these insights into the lives of great leaders tell us is how leaders behave. Some of these behaviours (but not all –exercises before breakfast?) meaningfully contribute to the people and organisations they lead.  Behaviours show us how leaders communicate ideas, how they work, what they write and how they think about problems. Importantly for us, behaviours are replicable.

So how do we see these behaviours if we don’t have access to our CEO? Great leaders aren’t just at the top of organisations. Leaders have an impact everywhere. Your boss, your colleague, or a member of your team can all be influencers, trend-setters, champions or quiet motivators.

So what can you do day today?It starts with identifying the behaviours that have the most impact. Leaders of course have moments of greatness, but it is the day to day activities that prepares them and makes their impact sustainable. There’s a reason we google things we’ve never done before. For many new tasks we find resources to copy and implement online. We learn through understanding and applying the models provided.

The following are behaviours that you can observe, adopt and practice. Pick someone you want to learn from a try this for a week. Be active in your reflection and with your effort to apply these behaviours.

What they say: Listen to the way the leader you admire verbally communicates with others. This might be in a company wide presentation, or it might be your direct manager speaking with you or one of your colleagues. Listen to how much they talk and how much they listen. How do they pace conversations? How do they give instructions? Do they give specific direction or make suggestions, and does this change depending on the person, situation or task?

Leaders don’t always get the tone right but great leaders hit it more often than not and are able to get their point across. By listening to what they say, in a variety of situations, you can learn the phrases and patterns that hit home most often to put away in your mental toolbox.

What they write: I keep emails from the leaders I admire. They might be corporate announcements, emails to the team or stakeholders, or the first step to starting a new project or set priorities. Keep anything that you noticed resonated with colleagues or with your personally.

When I need to do something unfamiliar, or want to make sure my pitch is perfect, I look at the structures, sentences or ideas from these emails. Do they jump straight to the point? Do they set the scene? How to they make their call to action? It may seem a small thing when you receive it but learning how to write an effective email promises to make your life easier, and make you a more effective leader in your organisation. I acknowledge that if the leader you are trying to emulate is Martin Luther King Jnr that it might be difficult to frame your emails in his style.

What they do: The behaviour of a leader you admire in the workplace can provide you with countless number of tools for your toolkit. Think about the role of the leader you admire? Do they initiate change? Are they creating stability? Do they manage up when screening team projects or are they beholden to the whims of other managers? Does this matter, and in which situations does it work or not? A great leader might get up at 5.30am to respond to emails but if translates to a workplace with a micromanager you get emails from at 5.37am, maybe this behaviour isn’t the one you want to replicate.

The other part of what they do is how they react. Leaders act proactively but they are adaptable. How they react to the unexpected can provide us with unique and valuable tools. One of the things I’ve learnt most recently from a leader I admire is how to react when the options seem to be closed. When this happens he thinks creatively. He asks strategic questions and takes the time to come up with an alternative. This has taught me to be patient with my solution, and to be bold when clarifying the situation whilst using the information available to be creative.

So how do you learn from great leaders? You copy. You listen, read, watch and you try to develop these behaviours in your own work. In doing so though, it’s important to also understand your own personality and style. It’s about looking at new ways of doing things and applying them authentically. You might admire a highly extroverted manager but find that style takes more energy than is sustainable. Look for a variety of great leaders that approach things differently. It’s up to you to judge and observe what works best with different people, situations and projects, and how you might draw on these across your career in a way that’s meaningful for you.

By picking and choosing from those you most admire you’re guaranteed to create a personal toolkit that will make you a more effective leader.

* Note that this study consisted of many months of Facebook scrolling and Fast Company articles


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