Trying to define leadership is like defining music. Trying to improve your leadership skills is like trying to write a song. There is no recipe, guidebook, or formula; it is much more art than science. You can sure learn the basics and some good fundamentals but at the end of the day, it’s about practice, learning from mistakes and learning from others. I never had a legendary mentor (Yoda was too busy) or a teacher that changed my life. Not surprisingly, very few of us have that. The way I keep improving my leadership skills is by learning from everyone and anyone around me, skills, behavior, habits, mistakes, how they speak, how they present, and so on. I have learned from my own mistakes and from the mistakes of others around me. You don’t have to have a mentor just open your eyes, learn and be ready to change. Here are some ideas I find important and some lessons I’ve learned.
Always look at the big picture
We usually start with the big picture, with the dream, with some huge aspiration. The challenge is that slowly and without noticing we’re getting sucked into the nitty-gritty tiny details, perfecting our idea, re-analyzing everything and suddenly we risk going astray without noticing. Try driving a car and only focus on ten feet in front of you. You’re most likely going to smash your car into bits (so don’t try it, just trust me). There is a reason why we focus on the road far ahead while driving. Always look far and try to see the big picture. The trick is that there is always a bigger picture that is eluding us. There is your current project big picture. Beyond that, there is this year’s big picture. Beyond that, there is your career big picture. Beyond that, there is your life big picture. Beyond that, there are things that are bigger than you. The current project seems pretty small details now, isn’t it?
Pay attention to details
Of course, only looking far will get your nowhere as you’ll stay with the dream. At the end of the day, it’s about the details and getting things done. Read emails all the way, find the typo in the copy, ask if that line on the design should really be there. Go back to it again and again examining it from every angle possible, and making small improvements, iteration by iteration. Nothing is perfect but you can sure get close. The key is to balance seeing the big picture while paying attention to details. A good ratio is 90/10, where 90% time spent on details and 10% spent on the big picture
It’s all about the people
It drives me crazy when leaders and managers refer to employees as “resources”. Computers are resources, pens are resources; people are not. It may be just a figure of speech, but for me, it shows disrespect and lack of care. Leaders should care about the people they lead, care deeply. As the saying goes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Don’t pretend to; people are smart enough to see through phony behavior. You may be a great businessman, a great salesman, a great speaker, but if you don’t care about the people you lead, you are not a leader, you’re just a person taking a walk.
Mistakes are inevitable
Over this weekend I heard someone describes this concept in the clearest way. He said: “At any given moment you are in one of these three states: you either just made a mistake, are in the process of making a mistake, or will make a mistake soon”. Just live with it, don’t worry too much about it but learn to recognize your mistakes, admit it and learn whatever there is to learn from it. Being afraid to make mistakes only holds you back. Embrace it, acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on!
Be brave and speak up
Be vocal, be open, be direct and be respectful. Nothing good ever came from people who kept things to themselves. I know this quite well since for a period of time I did keep things inside in some foolish hope to keep the peace. As Bernard M. Baruch once said: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”. If you need more encouragement, listen to the song Brave by Sara Bareilles and just let the word come out.
Find your style
Don’t try to become like the leader you think you should be or the leader you admire. Leading is not about some persona, it is about doing the right things for the right reasons and inspiring others to follow you in that journey. You can do it just the way you are, with your unique style and way of leading. I like humor and use it all the time, I like knowing people personally and what makes them tick, and I like pushing things the limit. That is my style. What is yours? Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.
Don’t get stuck in the past
We all know we need to learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. We all know we need to learn from the past and remember it. However, it is also important to leave the past behind. Sometimes we do or say things (or don’t do or say) that haunt us for a long time. Sometimes we miss opportunities, and sometimes, bad things just happen. Learn what is to learn, then let it go and move on. As Holocaust survival once said: “What was, was. What is, is. And that’s that”. If he can, you can too.
Believe in yourself
In the movie “Pretty Woman” Richard Gere tried to encourage Julia Roberts to believe in herself more, to which she responded with: “The bad stuff is always easier to believe”. Movies aside, it is the truth. I have seen it with others and I have seen it with myself. I have always been my own worst critic and most times things are never good enough. If funneled incorrectly it can and will drag you down. Turn it around, celebrate who you are, improve where you need to improve and march forward with your head held high. You can be your own critic if you’re also your own biggest fan. Believe in yourself as others do, they can’t all be wrong. Remember, “It is never too late to be what you might have been”.