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Why Leadership is a Learned Skill (and How You Can Boost Your Own Skills)

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There are a few common misconceptions around leadership that hold many people back from taking on leadership roles. One of the most frequent flawed refrains is that leadership is innate. If you’re not marked with the stamp of William Wallace at birth, well, you’re just not cut out to be a leader.

I’m here to tell you otherwise. Leadership can not only be learned, it’s a skill that you can and should continue to exercise throughout your professional life. Much like creativity, leadership can be a limitless well if you view it as something that can be cultivated, developed, and improved upon with each opportunity you get.  

I believe so much in the idea that leadership is a learned skill that we’ve developed our own internal leadership curriculum at 3Pillar. We’re in the midst of upgrading the curriculum for the second time, with this update taking into consideration some of the new leadership angles we’ve all learned about throughout the COVID crisis. Hundreds of our most senior and highest performing team members have been through a version of the leadership program by now. I can’t tell you how often people confide in me that it’s by far the most they’ve ever had to think about and consciously practice the art of leadership. Many of these people, it should be noted, have been in leadership positions for years, if not decades. 

Here are a few ways I’ve leaned in to learning (and practicing) the craft of leadership over the years. 

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

As a leader, seek out situations that make you uncomfortable. This is a great way to stretch yourself beyond whatever limitations you may imagine, and it can help you expand your own creative problem-solving skills. What’s more, to get the most out of your team, you are going to be responsible for pushing others to take on roles you know they are cut out for but that are outside their own comfort zones. You can only be a sounding board and a guide for your team in this situation if it’s something you routinely do yourself.  

Solicit Feedback From People Who Will Be Straight With You

Getting honest feedback from your peers isn’t always easy, especially if you’re the CEO or a senior executive. We’re taught not to antagonize “the boss” our entire lives. People will frequently soft-pedal their thoughts or feelings about your effectiveness as a leader, so seek out feedback from others in your orbit who are going to tell it like it really is. These can be board members, executives at companies you’re doing business with, or members of a group you’re a part of like YPO. I also find that setting the expectation with direct reports that you expect feedback from them is very helpful. And, departing employees are great resources for giving real, unvarnished feedback. Getting this feedback is critical to knowing which areas of your leadership game are firing on all cylinders and which ones need work.         

Continually Reinvent Yourself

Leadership development is about continually taking your game to the next level. The minute you start standing still or feeling content, you’re regressing. I love watching Marshall Goldsmith’s talk What Got You Here Won’t Get You There any time I start to feel like things are beginning to run on auto-pilot. It reminds me that there is so much more room for growth as a leader and that there are any number of new mountains I can attempt to climb if I keep my eyes open to the possibilities.   

Read Every Day

One of the biggest keys to my evolution as a leader is that I have a constant thirst for knowledge. The best way I know to feed that thirst is to dedicate time to read every day. And let me be perfectly clear, scrolling through your Twitter feed before bed doesn’t count, no matter how work-related the content may be. I like reading physical books because they remove the temptation to respond to email, see how the Celtics are doing, check investments, or any of the dozens of other things that may pop into my head to do if I were reading on my phone or a tablet. If you’re looking for recommendations, you may want to read one of my recent posts, The 3 Books That Have Taught Me the Most About Leadership.       

Wrapping It Up: View Leadership as Something that Can & Should be Learned

It’s hard to overstate why most businesses’ blind spots on leadership will continue to grow in importance. The Global Leadership Forecast 2018 research study found that only 14% of CEOs have the leadership talent they need to execute their strategies. Given that the study was conducted pre-Covid, I think it’s safe to assume that percentage has decreased since the study was conducted. 

What does that mean for you? For starters, there is ample opportunity in the business world for people who are interested in taking on leadership positions. Like so many things in life, the way you think about leadership will dictate how much you can build or improve upon your leadership skills. If you view it as a fixed, innate, ephemeral asset, that’s what it will remain. If you see it as a flexible, fungible, compounding asset that will yield greater returns the more you put into it, that’s what it will become for you.