Beginning Your Personal Leadership Journey: Clarify Your Initial Thinking
Your path to effective leadership begins by clarifying for yourself the kind of leader you want to be and then figuring out how to make your vision a reality. Becoming an effective leader is not something you can just read about and make happen. Reading and reflecting upon what scholarly experts and practitioners have discovered will be helpful, but is not sufficient. For most people, clarity involves years of observation, listening, reading, reflection, and experimentation, with both mistakes and accomplishments along the way.
Some of you will be a bit further along in their leadership journey than others. Some will come to their studies already thinking of themselves as leaders, while others will have a difficult time envisioning themselves in this way. Actively observing and regularly thinking about the qualities and behaviors of effective leaders may cause some members of the former group to question their self-perceptions and some members of the latter group to recognize leadership capabilities in themselves they might have overlooked.
One of the obstacles to clear thinking about leadership is equating it with positions of power in organizations (i.e., formal leadership). If this habit applies to you, it may be useful to begin by thinking about some of the key qualities and behaviors of leaders and then reflecting on the times you have seen these in yourself or in others who are not in positions of power. Have you ever, for example, seen someone in a support role successfully bring others together to help solve organizational problems or take advantage of opportunities? Or what about a client services worker whom others want to emulate? Do you know of an employee who regularly serves as a go-to person for his or her colleagues? What about the team member who quietly but consistently ensures everyone is included, heard, and feels appreciated? If you have not considered these as examples of leadership, why not?
Deciding on Your Personal Definition of Leadership
A useful early step in this journey is to craft a simple definition of leadership that will guide your decisions, behaviors, and interactions with others in the workplace. If you were to search the vast body of research and writing on leadership, you would find hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of definitions. According to Gary Yukl (2006, p. 8), one of the leading US scholars on this subject, "Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives."
While perfectly functional, this definition may not serve as a source of inspiration to help you with your personal leadership development journey. Therefore, you might want to create or find a normative definition, one that speaks to what you think leadership should ideally be. Here is one example: leadership is about endeavoring to help those who count on you for guidance and inspiration discover their own potential and achieve their own goals.
Invest a little time in searching for a definition that works for you, or plan to create a definition now and adjust it as you move forward. The decision is yours to make, but an important next step in this journey is to share and discuss your choice with your professor and perhaps with someone you trust to be supportive, caring, and honest at work.
Deciding on the Key Characteristics of an Effective Leader
Once you’ve decided on a personal definition of leadership, think about the specific characteristics that are associated with a highly effective leader. Your focus should not be on the power and influence a person might have because of their position or followers. Rather, it should be on the personal qualities, traits, attitudes, skills, and behaviors that are expected of an effective leader.
As you can imagine, many scholars and noted practitioners have examined the elements of leadership and proposed characteristics and behaviors they believe to be essential to its practice. Some have simply described what they discover from research ("what is"), and some have sought to isolate what they and others believe represents an ideal ("what should be"). Your interest is clearly in the latter. One way to tackle this task is to begin by jotting down the top five to eight characteristics you associate with effective leadership, in order of importance. This exercise gives you a good baseline upon which to build, and helps you deepen your thinking about this important topic.
Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (2009), three leadership experts who have unusually rich backgrounds as leader practitioners, consultants, scholars, and teachers, propose the following skills as particularly important:
- communicates clearly and coherently using the appropriate approach and medium
- listens actively and objectively using both verbal and nonverbal skills effectively
- stands up for self and others, ensuring fairness and equity in how people are treated and in the allocation of organizational resources
- manages stress for self and others, striving for balance and a healthy lifestyle
- maintains essential technical knowledge, skills, and abilities
- relates effectively with peers and those in more senior positions
- works to build both expertise and trust to ensure credibility
Having reviewed and reflected on what others believe are important leadership skills, recheck the initial set of characteristics you created and select the qualities you will work on to become a highly effective leader.
Hughes, R. L, Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2009). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.
Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.