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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

This is how your boss got to be a leader. And it sucks. Do better.

This sounds crazy, but we aren’t born knowing anything about leadership. Go ahead and argue with me about nature vs. nurture and all of that, but I’ll argue that no human being is born with a set of specific behaviors about how to relate to others to turn a vision into reality. It just isn’t so.

So here’s what happens. As we grow up, we watch and model (we’ll come back to that word) and do a bit of trial and error, and end up with some things that seem to help us get other people to do what we want. Some of these behaviors are useful, like asking politely. Some are not so positive, but maybe still effective, like yelling at people. (I’m sure we each had a coach who yelled at us to run faster, or pass the ball, or whatever, and so we did.) This is how we build a very loose, relatively ineffective leadership practice.

Then we get to be adults, and suddenly we are asked to take on an increasing amount of responsibility in whatever our work might be, and we have to figure out how to get people to do what we want. So we watch our managers and bosses, and copy them. Again, some good behaviors and some bad - but it’s all luck, because there’s no rhyme or reason to who gets promoted to front-line supervision (unfortunately). So now we’re building a style of leadership, again haphazardly.

Maybe we get really interested and pick up a few books, but going from an idea on the page to an actual behavior is very hard, so we likely only maintain a couple, if any, of these practices. Perhaps the organization we work for has a class or two on leadership, so we’re picking up a few techniques that work. But again, going from a classroom to a behavior we implement consistently over time is difficult.

As our responsibility increases, we feel increasing pressure to “be a leader” and increasing stress about our lack of formal training and understanding. People are difficult, we say to ourselves, as we turn over in our heads whether the next promotion, and the increased managerial responsibility it brings, is really worth the extra money.

This is the learning process for almost every leader in the world. I’ve seen it hundreds (thousands?) of times. But the definition of leadership is about flipping this process on its head. When we understand what is required of us as leaders, and the process of learning we use to get there, we can direct our actions and our personal growth towards a productive outcome. We can learn deliberately, and then select the actions that are mostly likely to create the result we want. That's how we can be better leaders than our bosses.

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