Recently, I have begun to feel that leadership is much more about practices than about competencies. Management is full of competencies — technical ones, project management ones, financial ones, even interpersonal ones. But leadership draws from deeper waters of the soul. How would I develop a “competency” for honesty or for inspiration or for sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings? How would I create a “skill set” about being in service to the world and to others?
The word practice seems to me a better fit. A practice is a conscious entry into a certain kind of action, driven by an instinct for contribution, by personal values, and a desire for impact. A person may be good or not at a particular practice, but it is through great commitment to the practice that his or her leadership presence ultimately becomes known and is judged by the world.
An example. More than twenty years ago a good friend and mentor told me point blank that anyone who could not receive feedback should never be in a leadership job. For the next ten years I watched him live this ethic in his work. It was not always easy for him. Sometimes he received very difficult, untrue, inflaming feedback — but the way he handled it and learned from it was always a model to others. He did not do this to achieve a competency or win merit or approval from others or to get a great performance appraisal and pay raise. He did it as a part of himself alone, a core ingredient of his person. He had claimed a personal intention beyond and larger than himself and whether or not it would be entirely understood and appreciated. I know he had some difficult nights and he dealt with dread. Yet he exemplified a kind of magnificence in this practice that deeply inspired others like me. I believe his work with feedback defined a practice, not a “competency” — at least not in the shallow way that word is often used.
What are the most important of these practices? It’s a good question. I would say they are myriad and must be defined individually. Here are eight I have been thinking a lot about lately, based on my own inner work, my past experiences, and my work with clients:
- Knowing oneself well enough to articulate a personal leadership challenge – a focus for profound learning; an edge for personal growth
- Willingness to engage in feedback — both giving and receiving — with balance and honesty and vulnerability; a willingness to work through the “shadow stuff” of relationships
- Self-care — the practice of nourishing oneself; ending the various forms of self-punishment — from overwork or alcoholism or aloneness or many other addictions
- Influence of others — through the practice of connecting with others as people rather than through force, threat and expectation or solely through the setting of rigid personal boundaries
- Dealing with “undiscussables” — the practice of engaging with others around the most sensitive and uncomfortable but real topics that others may not feel able to initiate — with the goals of learning, personal and systems change, and forgiveness
- Building collaboration — the practice of turning conflict into synergy between self and others — and among others — so that group identity, collective work, capability and joy are the means to profound results
- Enhancing personal integrity — the practice of authentic action that is neither self-righteous nor self-indulgent but adheres to a middle way that is grounded, real and deeply true to oneself
- Perceiving the world from a spiritual standpoint — the practice of finding a personal viewpoint that is founded on awareness and love.
So much of what is written about leadership begins with these building blocks, whether the task of creating shared vision, changing systems, adequately coaching people or building partnerships.
I invite your own perspectives! To you, what are the leadership practices that you believe are most important? What have been your experiences and stories? What events or people in your life have shaped your views?
[Update 6/6/11: For more context on this posting, please see:
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective]