Learning to Lead, One Step at a Time

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We have interesting mythologies about leaders. That leaders are always inspiring. That they have a commanding presence.  That

Wait, are you guys following me?

Wait, are you guys following me?

they’re exemplary people. But when you really examine the lives and personalities of some of the most revered people—from Lincoln to  Gandhi to Jobs– when you strip away the mythology, you find some weird stuff:  Quirks, inconsistencies, bad habits, startling belief systems. Because really, leaders are just people. They weren’t always leaders. They didn’t always succeed. They were, in most ways, just like the rest of us. Leadership can be taught.

How do you start? How does somebody who wasn’t team captain or class president learn to lead, now, in adulthood? You start with the past.  Look back over all the leaders good and bad in your life: parents, teachers, coaches, bosses…. Why did they qualify as good or bad? What would you change about the way they worked?  That’s a great foundation because it begins with your experience. You know what it feels like to be ignored or to be heard. You know what it feels like to be given new challenges or to be sent back to the same tasks over and over.  You know what it feels like to be expected to kiss ass or to have to watch someone who does succeed over you.

Sometimes we learned crazy stuff from previous leaders. Like that only performance matters, regardless of what you have to do to squeeze it out of people. Or that only people matter and it’s okay to let the organization flounder and fail in order to put people first. Really, neither is true. Great leaders put people and performance BOTH first. After all, what person wants to work for a flaccid organization? We all want to be working for something dynamic that makes a difference and we make a difference in it.

There are some skill sets and strategies to learn how to do that. There are ways to communicate and give feedback, to ask for participation in a way that compels response, to recognize talent and find effective ways to reward performance.  But the fact of the matter is, when you start actually practicing these techniques and skills, you’re going to screw up. Don’t worry about it. People respond to those who are human.  If you admit to the people you’re about to lead that you’re new at this, that you want to be good at respecting them, listening to them and giving them a role, but that you’re just beginning to put these skills into practice, most people will wholeheartedly support you and give you useful feedback. It’s like training for a marathon…every day can’t be a good day. Most people accept and actually embrace others’ humanity and foibles as long as they know they’ll be given the same consideration.

These days, there are a ton of opportunities to demonstrate leadership. You can be a leader in a big organization without ever having the “title.” You can lead as an entrepreneur. You can lead in your church or non-profit volunteer organization or start a meetup group. Heck, you can lead a political demonstration.  Chances are, that by deciding to become a leader, you’ll grow in ways you never even imagined.

And if you’re looking for fundamentals, ValentineHR will be conducting a series of classes on various management related topics the first Thursday of every month.  Our first session will be on Management/Leadership Best Practices from 8:45 a.m. to 11 on August 1. Free breakfast included. Contact lori@valentinehr.com for pricing and location details.



We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.