Leadership is Like Skiing: You Can’t Learn it by Reading a Book

Kevin P. Dincher

I may be wrong about this, but from my reading and conversations with colleagues and clients, I get the impression that relatively few supervisors and managers and even fewer C-level executives, entrepreneurs and board members actively pursue disciplined professional leadership development. They read books, articles and blogs about leadership, and they attend workshops and seminars—so they know about leadership. There is, however, a world of difference between knowing about leadership and becoming an effective leader.

“Born Leaders” and “Made Leaders”

Leadership coach and author Erika Andersen (Leading So People Follow) writes that like most human capabilities, leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  There’s the 10-15% at the top of the bell curve; they are “born leaders” who start out good and tend to get better.  At the bottom of the curve are the 10-15% of people who are never going to be very good leaders no matter how hard they try; they simply do not have the innate wiring.  In the middle of the curve is the vast majority of us; most of us have some degree of innate leadership capability that can be developed. This is where the real potential for “made leaders” lies.

Most of the people in the middle of the curve can actually become very good leaders—and even great leaders. Over time, they can acquire new leadership skills. They are not, however, likely to acquire and perfect those skills simply from reading books or attending an occasional seminar.

Leadership Can be Taught and Learned—but Reading Isn’t Learning

Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keep’s book title ” target=”_blank”>Telling Ain’t Training has become an axiom in the learning field. The goal of training is not simply to pass on information; it is to teach new skills and change behavior. When you tell people about leadership or they read about leadership, they might intellectually understand what you want them to know, but that doesn’t mean that they have acquired any new skills. 

Think about learning to ski. Let’s say someone explains to you how it is done, shows you a video, and provides you with a how-to manual to read. Are you ready to head off to Aspen, strap on some skis and hurl yourself down the advanced slopes? There is a world of difference between knowing about skiing and having the skill to ski. Most people need someone to help them practice new skills (like how to stop) on the bunny slope. They need to practice—and they need someone to work with them on the slopes.

Leadership development works the same way:  we need to practice—and we need someone to work with us in the field so the leadership skills we learn become firmly ingrained and habitual.

You Can’t Learn Leadership Alone 

Many leadership lessons, however, are not just about acquiring new skills. Many leadership lessons are about unlearning old habits, default reactions, and assumptions about human nature in order to adopt new and different choices and behaviors.  The key to this unlearning—and the becoming a good leader—is self-awareness.

By becoming self-aware I don’t mean becoming self-absorbed. I’ve worked with far too many “it’s-all-about-me leaders” who are way too focused on themselves, on their own evolution, on their own  drama to ever become really great leaders. Becoming truly self-aware means to cultivate an accurate sense of how you stand in the world—and includes such things as:

  • Knowing your real strengths and weaknesses not only as a leader but also as a person.
  • Having an accurate picture of the impact that you have on others.
  • Knowing what you most care about.
  • Having a moral compass and using it as a guidance system.
  • Knowing how your actions line up with your promises.

This kind of self-awareness will never be found in a book or achieved in a 3-day seminar. You need someone to challenge you when you say you think you have great relationship-building skills but people actually find you somewhat insensitive and overbearing. You need someone who can agree that you have excellent communication skills—and then ask you what keeps you from speaking up and using them.  And you need someone who can give you a “thumbs up” when you nail it!   None of us can really see ourselves with total clarity without assistance. As Andersen says, it’s like trying to know what you look like without having a mirror.

If you want to be an effective leader, you need to learn certain skills through practice and coaching—but you also need to have an accurate picture of how you operate in the world. To get that picture you need someone (or perhaps even a group of people) who knows you well, wants what is best for you, and is willing to be drop-dead honest with you in the service of that.

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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Improve Your Communication – Send Fewer Emails!

Kevin P. Dincher

Communicating effectively is a major workplace challenge, and technology has made it possible to communicate quickly with anyone anywhere any time. But “communicating quickly 24/7” is not the same as “communicating effectively”—and so every once in a while, I tell my clients that email is insidious and possibly downright evil. I don’t really think so—but it gets their attention.

The Volume Problem

The immense volume of email that many of us receive each day can make email seem like an unbeatable adversary in a battle between responding to messages and getting the work done that we had planned. Our days easily feel more reactive than productive. One friend’s day is so dominated by email that her FaceBook posts are regular updates on progress in cleaning out her inbox. Only very rarely does she get to post “Inbox Zero!” It is always a bit impressive, therefore, when people come up with a system for dealing with email overload that actually works for them. For instance, both Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner have developed their own systems for handling email and staying productive rather than email being a constant, nagging drag on his day. Their systems won’t work for everyone, but they are good examples of taking a systematic approach to email—and not making “Inbox Zero” your goal.

It’s Not Just a Problem of Volume

Not all problems with email communication are volume related. Because email is so pervasive and so immediate, it seems like we should use it for everything. There are, however, things that we shouldn’t do by email.

Keep it Short and Simple

Email is at its best when sharing simple, specific information. If you have a quick question or are providing a short update on a project, email is the way to go. Email is perfect for sending out a brief request, simple instructions or a clear to do list. It is also a great way to get information to multiple people that they need to read, process and refer back to (for example, agenda topics for an upcoming meeting). When the message is simple, straightforward information that doesn’t require much (if any) discussion, explanation or deliberation, then email is the way to go.

As the communication becomes more complex, however, consider picking up the phone or scheduling some face-to-face time rather than defaulting to email.

  • Don’t use email for complicated instructions that are likely to generate questions or require further explanation.
  • Avoid long, complex emails. When the message is lengthy, difficult and complicated, email can make a mess of it. If you find yourself taking a long time to write and edit an email, then you probably shouldn’t be using email.
  • People are less likely to read a message that is more than a brief paragraph or two. Just think how often you’ve received a long email and said, “I’ll read that one later,” and later never comes.
  • Don’t use email for solving complex problems or problem solving that involves multiple people. You are more likely to produce a jumble of increasingly confusing email threads than workable solutions.

When Time is Critical, Pick up the Phone

When time is critical, pick up the phone to get the information or the action you need when you need it. Even though electronic media moves a message from Point A to Point B in an instant, it doesn’t guarantee that a message gets from Person A to Person B in an instant.

We have all experienced the frustration of sending an email asking for information that we need now—and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Be realistic:  even in today’s always-connected world, I may not get your message in time to be helpful to you. Additionally, writing styles don’t always convey the same sense of urgency; I may not pick up that your need is any more critical than that of the other 50 emails I received in the last 10 minutes. The best way to deal with urgency is by phone or face-to-face.

Strong Emotions or Sensitive Information? Stay Away from the SEND Button!

Don’t use email when you need to communicate bad news, complaints, criticism or negative feedback—or anything that is sensitive or controversial. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings result more easily without the benefit of paralanguage—facial expressions, intonation and body language—and strong emotions are more likely to escalate.

Additionally, always remember that the FORWARD button is very easy to use—and incredibly tempting when people are upset or when the information is just too good (or too bad) not to share. Don’t use email when information is extremely sensitive, when the message is confidential or if you do not want to have a permanent record of the message. Once you send an email, you can never get it back, and you lose all control of what happens to it. You simply have no way of knowing where an email message will end up. A good rule of thumb:  never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper!

Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

Posted in Communication, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , , . Comments Off on Improve Your Communication – Send Fewer Emails!
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