As a leader, you take courses and attend workshops. You listen to the feedback given to you by your boss – both informally and in performance reviews. You share best practices with peers and learn what’s worked for them, too. You devour articles and books about leadership. You read this blog. 😉
You take your role seriously and you want to learn how to do better.
And that’s the key: In addition to LEARNING new techniques and strategies, you have to DO the new techniques and strategies.
Some courses or workshops include activities based on real-life situations, role-playing exercises, etcetera – which are useful – but it’s very different to use skills in real-life situations with your team members than it is to try them out in a classroom.
Taking theory and putting it into practice takes more than just conscious effort. Let’s face it, it can be much easier to read about how to deal with difficult employees or how to tackle bad conflict on your team than to actually start using new ideas.
I’ve often had coaching clients express feeling uneasy about following through on what they’ve learned. What if it goes wrong? What if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t do this right? Of course, the easy answer is, “what if you keep doing what you’ve been doing and nothing improves? ”
The thing is, successful leaders in any organization don’t get there by knowing more, they get there because they put what they know into practice. They wade into those tricky areas of leadership – like managing office politics, addressing problems promptly, improving communication among team members or departments, making the best decisions in crisis situations, leading with confidence through difficult times, building trust in the office and more – and they take action.
Being able to use what you learn to improve your leadership takes what nowadays we call emotional courage (it would have been simply guts or intestinal fortitude in the past!). It means that you find the strength to push through unsettling feelings of discomfort, anxiety or dread to try something new. Having emotional courage is what lets us take risks, face things head on and break old habits.
As with any new skills, practice makes perfect. You need to test out the things you’ve learned and see what works well and what could be done differently or better next time. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to use a technique again – even when emotions or stakes are higher.
Learn how and when to practice your leadership skills:
Be brave. Making the decision to act is part of the battle because fear flourishes when we feel uncertain. Don’t overthink it, just do your best. Some folks like to give themselves permission to fake it till they make it. Perhaps you’ve been putting off having THE TALK with your pre-teen. Pick a time and place and wade into that uncomfortable topic of the birds and the bees with a few key points to focus on. Those feelings you’re pushing through? Surprisingly similar to deciding to have a difficult conversation with a team member who is not contributing as they should be at work.
Start with low-risk situations. It takes time to build confidence and learn to use new skills well. Test them out in times that are less intense so that when you need to use the same skills in a crisis, you’ll feel more comfortable. For example, having a difficult conversation (without losing it or giving in on your position!) over a personal billing situation will build your confidence to handle conflict with a big client who is unhappy with an invoice sent by someone on your team.
Aim for progress, not perfection. Too often, we beat ourselves up for not getting things perfect the first time. Keep in mind that you are learning to apply these skills to infinite combinations of situations and personalities. There may be times that you do all the right things and there might be times you realize you could have done something differently – and that’s okay. You’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from not trying.
Keep adding to your toolkit. Successful leaders are lifelong learners because what works in one situation might not be the best strategy in another. And what worked 2 years ago might not be best now. The more we know about and test different skills, the better we can be.
Solicit feedback. Don’t be afraid of hearing where things fell short from your peers, your team or from a trusted mentor. Good leaders aren’t afraid of criticism and see feedback as a learning opportunity. If you’re having trouble with getting feedback, or how you’re reacting to it, maybe work with a coach. Remember that the best athletes have coaches (and so do many of the most successful leaders!).
Practice, practice, practice all the time. The more you use your leadership tools, the better you’ll develop those muscles. Many folks find it helpful to refine their leadership skills outside the office (there’s that low-risk opportunity again!) so they are more confident using them at work. For example, you can test whether you’re listening to respond in your personal relationships, help to strengthen working relationships in a community group or try a COACH Approach as a board member on a volunteer organization. Interacting with people from varied backgrounds will help you hone your skills and expand your thinking.
Take time to reflect regularly. Journaling can be a very helpful way to focus on ways to improve your leadership (so much so that we consider it the one leadership habit you can’t live without). Consider areas you’d like to improve in like giving better performance reviews or having essential conversations and take note of any achievements you make in these areas. You can watch for opportunities to try out different leadership tools in different situations.
What leadership skills have you learned about but hesitated to try in real life? What’s holding you back? How and when can you practice something this week?