Being an executive coach puts me in front of audiences and the frequent inquiries from followers. This post is in reference to a simple question I received not long ago.
Can I develop leadership qualities and skills through books and practice?
My answer, absolutely! Books are a great place to start. Books can help increase the leadership growth process. It can also “lift your leadership lid”. Growing from manager to leader requires input. You cannot give what you don’t have. That requires learning and absorption.
One of the greatest writers of our time for leadership thought is John Maxwell*. He has published dozens of books and sold over 25 million copies worldwide. He is hands down, the most prolific writer on the subject of leadership. And his books exude his genuine passion for the topic and his heart for helping each one of us grow.
As I said in my own book. “The Uncommon Commodity: The Common Sense Guide for New Managers”, there have been hundreds, if not thousands of books written about management and leadership. The more of these books you read, the more you will find some core competencies and traits that define effective leadership. Yes, different authors will describe the principles in different ways, but the facts remain. There are clearly specific areas from which you can grow.
Here’s the amazing thing about leadership development and growth. With so many attributes making up the patchwork quilt of good leadership, no one, absolutely no one starts exactly the same.
We each possess certain unique views and mindsets from which our ability to lead emerges. The challenge is learning to understand which leadership skills you might have been born with and which ones you need to develop.
All leadership skills can be improved upon over time. Regardless of the innate ability you might have, or the “calling to be a leader” you sense, there is always room to grow. Maxwell describes it as a simple scale. If leadership is scored 1 through 9, the 1’s can learn from everyone above them. The 5’s need to look up to the 6, 7, and 8 people. The 9’s are few and far between. You get the picture.
Maxwell also says:
You cannot give what you don’t have.
This means that as a leader, you must desire to grow. You will never increase beyond where you are without growth. You cannot give what you don’t have.
As to practicing leadership, again, my answer – absolutely. But you should engage a coach to guide your development. The sports analogies fit. I can go to the gym by myself and do some things I read in a book, but my body may not be ready for certain exercises and complexities.
Leadership is that way too. A coach can shape your progress, guiding you carefully up the development curve.
Practicing the principles, applying the teaching you receive to real life situations will give you the experience to grow further. It is very much like mountain climbing. You have to keep moving upward and onward. Each successful step up the climb gives you a little more confidence to take the next step.
Without practicing your leadership, you never prove to yourself what works well and what doesn’t. Without life application, the things you read are only mental exercises. You need live fire drills to enforce the principles and strengthen your understanding of the use of each one.
Experience is a great teacher. That sounds cliché, but applies perfectly here.
Growth is Required
Back to the original question – Can I develop leadership qualities and skills through books and practice? I argue the question is not optional, but required. The best leaders keep growing. They use experience to fine tune their skill sets, but they look for better and deeper insights from those who have focused attention on writing and coaching.
Every few years, thought leaders emerge that the masses follow. In no particular order, I like Stephen R. Covey “7 Habits“, John Maxwell, Brian Tracy, Jim Collins “Good to Great“, Simon Sinek, and most recently Seth Godin “Tribes“.
Disruptive thought is the mindset du jour these days. Anything that is seen as being disruptive to traditional thinking is cool. Don’t get me wrong, I am big fan of this disruptive mindset too. That is why looking for voices that have meaningful messages is important.
Here’s My Bottom Line
You can get immersed in very academic debate about management and leadership theory. You can get lost in vocabulary and terminology that adds no good value and serves no good purpose.
I suggest to you that the best leaders I have ever served with or known, operate with a high degree of common sense. Sadly, common sense is truly an uncommon commodity. That is why I named my own book just that.
If you are an aspiring manager who wants to become a better leader at work, at home, or in your community, find mentors who have demonstrated their leadership in bigger ways, far beyond making money for some organization. Instead look to the following they have.
Decide whether the following represents the values and principles you want to stand for. What has the flowing accomplished.
I close with this example. John Maxwell has grown an organization of over 20,000 coaches worldwide. They serve in 70+ countries around the world. These Maxwell coaches influence people in all walks of life; educators, business people, care givers, etc.
That, my friend is leadership.
[reminder]Share your experience with finding a meaningful book or mentor to follow.[/reminder]
*Note: John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold over 12 million books. His organizations have trained more than one million leaders worldwide. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of Injoy Stewardship Services and EQUIP. Every year he speaks to Fortune 500 companies, international government leaders, and organizations as diverse as the United States Military Academy at West Point and the National Football League. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week best-selling author, Maxwell was one of 25 authors named to Amazon.com’s 10th Anniversary Hall of Fame. Two of his books, “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and “Developing the Leader Within You“, have each sold over a million copies.