Leaders aren’t born. They grow.
Yes, some people are born with characteristics that make leadership easier. Some people are more outgoing, or intellectually gifted, or quick thinking. Some are excellent communicators, or have natural self-belief.
But opportunities to learn and grow dramatically outweigh all of those factors combined. Leadership is learned and developed through a combination of practice, feedback, experience, observation, intuition, judgment, reflection, and input from others, including coaching, mentoring, books, courses, and programs. Training and courses can be valuable in helping leaders grow, particularly programs that involve practical leadership challenges and experiences tied to powerful frameworks and concepts. Experience over time, especially in the crucibles of challenges and crises, slowly shapes the character of leaders.
Nelson Mandela, whose life and leadership we celebrate, is an example of a leader who grew. His early life in African nationalism involved moving from legal, non-violent protests to angry militancy, sedition, and sabotage. After twenty-seven years in prison, he embodied forgiveness, reached out to former enemies, and embraced compromise and reconciliation to end apartheid. Moving from militancy to moral leadership was a lifelong journey for Mandela, and his leadership is a powerful example of playing “the long game” with remarkable vision, commitment, patience, and belief.
Such evolution can also be observed in other remarkable leaders. George Washington evolved from a losing commander in the French and Indian War to the inspiring and beloved leader of the Revolutionary War and the first U.S. president.
Abraham Lincoln grew from a self-educated country lawyer to an unlikely president who struggled with selecting good battlefield generals, to a commander-in-chief who gradually earned the respect and loyalty of his fractious Cabinet, and finally to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and “steel and velvet” leader who helped save the Union.
John F. Kennedy grew from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the inspired leadership of the Cuban Missile Crisis, lunar mission, and civil rights legislation.
Many leaders get stuck, but committed leaders find ways to keep learning and growing. How can you continue to grow as a leader?
Twelve Tips to Grow as a Leader
- Define an inspiring purpose for your life and your personal values to form your moral compass.
- Commit to an important quest, such as building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization.
- Set stretch goals. (And when you reach them, set new ones.)
- Understand that service to others is the essence of leadership. It’s not about you.
- Actively seek feedback, and mine for areas to improve since leaders are often insulated from reality and frank observations from people who report to them.
- Read voraciously.
- Actively seek training and coaching, even if you are a senior leader. You’re never too cool for school.
- Find sanctuary—places and practices of peace in your daily life where you can retreat, reflect, and renew without intrusions from the busyness of life. Take a sabbatical.
- Join a circle of peers where you can bare your souls in confidence and support one another with trusted counsel.
- Learn about all aspects of your organization so you can see the perspectives of the board and different departments or divisions and how they all fit together.
- Recruit a mentor and in turn mentor a promising, emerging leader.
- Volunteer to lead projects, starting small at first and then taking on more challenging assignments. Practicing leadership is the best way to grow as a leader.
How many of these tips are you following now? Great leaders grow over time. Are you growing as a leader?
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Twitter: @TripleCrownLead