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Leaders, You Can (And Must) Do Better. Here’s How.

In my 40 year leadership career, I’ve observed a lot of what I call “seat-of-the-pants” leadership. It happens like this: fairly hard-working, well-meaning people are promoted into management positions. They hope to do a good job but they haven’t thought too hard about what that might mean.  Inevitably, without a game-plan, and in the face of many competing priorities and pressures, they end up “winging it.” They’re not necessarily doing a bad job, nor are they intentionally neglecting their potential; that’s just it – there’s no intention to their leadership at all. It’s rudderless and haphazard. They hop from one challenge to another just trying to get through the day without the whole thing crashing down around them. They’re not engaging with people authentically; they’re not getting the results they want. They have a nagging sense that things could be better or different but can’t seem to find a way to achieve breakthrough. And they continue this way endlessly, adrift in a fog of uncertainty, never quite effecting big change in their organization or fully earning the buy-in of their stakeholders.

Sadly, this type of leadership used to be good enough. People could get by with an insufficient approach without losing too much credibility. Not anymore. The digital age has ushered in an era of unprecedented mistrust and dysfunction. What worked before won’t work today. People are watching what you do, what you say, how you say it. Always. Your behavior matters more now than ever.

What’s more, many people feel their leaders have let them down. They don’t have faith in their institutions or the individuals at the helm of those institutions. Their jobs are hard and awash in complexity, too. They need a steadfast champion, with character and competence that is beyond reproach, who they can trust to guide them as they navigate the unchartered waters of the modern workplace.

Frankly, the people in organizations of all kinds, big and small, have become acutely aware that they deserve better. And they’re right. People are searching for enlightened leadership that speaks to them in an authentic way. But many leaders struggle to crack the code on how to become the champion they sense their people so desperately need. It’s not for a lack of trying or desire. Many leaders do, in earnest, want to do better; they yearn to make a real difference and hunger to influence their organization with honor — but they can’t seem to find their way.

A 21st Century Predicament. 

I understand the predicament these “seat-of-the-pants” leaders find themselves in. Leadership is tough; great leadership even more so. There are so many seemingly different things to juggle: one can’t seem to get subordinates to listen to them, while another struggles to build trust with their board; others find it difficult to create direction, or they can’t detoxify a poisoned culture, or they can’t even empower direct reports to make speedy decisions without them. They look to external circumstances to explain the non-stop issues – blaming the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world for their inability to make headway. With each new challenge that arises, they feel themselves being swallowed by the torpor and complexity; it’s as if each new problem is another kernel of quicksand and they’re up to their knees, now their waist, and before you know it they feel as if they’re being consumed. How to crawl out of it, the never-ending pressures? They end up cutting corners to make the shareholders happy in the moment, or spinning half-truths to temporarily placate employees, until the fragile house of cards they’ve built on short-termism and fakery comes tumbling down with great force.

Fortunately, I have found through much reflection, study, and practice leading large organizations that there is, unequivocally, a better way to lead people in the new millennium. While the various problems today’s leaders face appear different on the surface, they are all actually rooted in the same issue: leaders don’t know who they are, what they stand for, or why they want to lead. They are not anchored. They have no purpose.

Without knowing who you are, your leadership cannot have any substance; it lacks meaning. And people sense that absence of meaning, intuitively, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. This lack of a clear, principled leadership point-of-view seeps into every corner of the organization and stifles the entire effort.  But there is a simple solution. It does require some work on the part of the leader but it pays enormous dividends in renewed energy, higher trust, and extraordinary performance.

Leadership Is an Inside-Out Craft. 

If you are committed to getting better at leading, and effectively meeting the leadership challenges of the 21st century – you simply must stop looking outward for the answers. The real reason many leaders never achieve breakthrough is that their approach is insufficient; they are treating leadership as a job and it’s more than a job – it’s a craft: honed with intention, practiced mindfully, and improved constantly. The answer to your leadership problems, and to mastering your craft, lies in a simple process for careful reflection. By looking inward first, you can begin to make a real difference in the world around you.

The 5 Essential Questions of Leadership.

If you’ve felt for a long time that you need to make a change in your leadership, the questions below are of the utmost importance. To chart a new leadership course, you need a clear code that guides your thinking and behavior. Then, you can build on that code and develop a leadership model.  The importance of this cannot be overstated. A commitment to this process is what is missing in 21st century leadership. 

Why is it so important? A model defines your approach in a way that works uniquely for you, and anchors you to your most closely held beliefs and principles; it keeps you grounded when times are tough and energizes you to keep moving forward when things are going well. It adds intention to your leadership; it prevents you from “winging it.” Your model is the spine of your leadership, supporting all your decisions, providing stability, keeping you on the straight-and-narrow. If you do the necessary work to develop and define your leadership philosophy, the resulting model will be your most reliable wellspring of  strength, courage, discipline, and accountability.

How do you arrive at a model that works for you? It’s a continuous improvement process that requires ongoing reflection and practice (and often coaching or mentorship). But first, it begins with taking the necessary time to think about, and answer, these 5 essential questions:

  1. What makes people give the very best of themselves? (See a step-by-step process for answering this question here).
  2. What makes for ever stronger performance in an ever changing world? (See a step-by-step process for answering this question here).
  3. Why do I choose to lead? (See a step-by-step process for answering this question here).
  4. What is my code? (See a step-by-step process for answering this questionhere).
  5. How well do I walk the talk? (See a step-by-step process for answering this question here).

Think carefully about each of these questions, writing down every single thing that comes to mind. Put it aside. Revisit it a week later and write down, again, everything that pops in to your head. Do this as many times as you want until you feel you have brainstormed every possible reason, answer, or thought. Then, try to summarize how you would answer the question, in a sentence or two, if somebody else asked you tomorrow. You will be surprised by the power of the exercise; you will see that a pattern, a philosophy, a defined point-of-view will begin to take shape.

A Leadership Adventure. 

Answering these questions was the turning point on my leadership journey. It kick-started a 40 year adventure of learning and leading that continues to this day. Even though it took years of reflection and practice to arrive at my leadership model, the ConantLeadership Flywheel,  it was well worth the effort. This process of self-discovery helped me to become a more disciplined, effective leader. Using my model as my guide, I can be confident that my actions are anchored in a self-sustaining (and transparent) circle of highly effective leadership principles. I can hold myself accountable to the model – and so can everybody else. It provides consistency and structure while enabling me to lead with integrity, even when times are tough.

Ultimately, people can sense when they are in good hands; and they can tell when something is amiss. What would your employees and colleagues say about you? Would they be confident  in your character and competence or would they say you are one of the countless 21st century leaders who needs to improve? If you know you need to change, there is nothing stopping you. It starts with you. You can do better. It’s not easy, but it is simple – and incredibly rewarding. Start by answering these five questions. I think you’ll find they will jumpstart your journey of self-discovery and put you well on your way to crafting a personal leadership model that will empower you to make a memorable difference in the lives of the people with whom you live and work.

Continue Your Learning. 

ConantLeadership Boot CampIf you are searching for more personal instruction, direction, or coaching as you work through the five questions and begin to create your model, I invite you to join me at one of my upcoming leadership boot camps in Philadelphia, PA. Taught by me personally, this 2-day in-person program kicks off a full year of additional guidance and mentorship with me. The program offers an immersion into the craft of leadership and provides a carefully guided exploration of your own principles, codes, and competencies. You will leave having created the blueprint for the most essential tool of your leadership journey: your personal leadership model. Developing my model was the most significant and powerful contributor to my leadership over my lifetime. This is your opportunity to have the same experience under the personal tutelage of an experienced Fortune 500 CEO. And to raise your game monumentally. This is an exclusive opportunity and space is limited. Apply today.

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

The Blueprint

The Blueprint

6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights

By Douglas Conant with Amy Federman

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