The first lesson that I learned over the years, or may be the most important one, is that leadership is not part of your genes; therefore it should be learned, progressively, patiently. In this respect, it is as much an art as a science.
The breadth and depth of the learning depends largely on the scope of situations in which leadership has to be exercised. As each organization has its own behavioral fabric, it helps aspiring leader to try their skills in different companies and settings, across cultures and geographies. The variety of experimental conditions create as many platforms, each of them presenting different challenges and an opportunity to try new approaches, collect different feedback and derive situation-specific insights.
In addition, it is essential to understand that leadership cannot be fully taught in business schools or training programs, in spite of the myriad of such programs available off the shelf or developed by corporations. Such programs provide a robust overview of the basic equipment and sometimes some usable advice as to how to use it. But the real learning stems from experimenting, trying in good faith and most importantly, sometimes failing miserably. One way to illustrate this is the cooking metaphor. You can give all the ingredients and a detailed recipe to a number of aspiring chefs, but only a few will create the kind of magical cuisine that will stimulate your taste buds and deserve stars and international fame.
In a way, I’d describe the journey to mastering leadership as the life of a creative scientist, designing experiments, leveraging available material and operating conditions, creating sets of assumptions, attempting to verify them, harvesting some results and hopefully some insight, and trying again after adjusting some key parameters.
To those who like to pretend that leadership is an innate capability, I’d counter argue that if it sometimes looks and feel that way to onlookers, it’s probably leadership exercised by someone who’s mastered the experimenting process to the point of using it at the speed of light (thanks to relentless experimenting), hence making it invisible – and thus unintelligible – to the average observer.
The second lesson is that you do not try consciously to become a leader (as you would – say – design a set of actions and initiatives to reach a financial goal), you become one when you realize that what you do, what you say, where you go, the maps you design for your team and what you stand for, is intelligible to and resonates with some people around you and eventually triggers a form of attraction.
From that point onward, planning plays a greater role so as to create and fuel momentum from this starting point. In a way (and metaphorically), the beginning of the process is like the grain of sand that becomes the seed of the pearl. The oyster hasn’t been asking for or planning to have this tiny piece of stone inserted in its anatomy. The starting point usually is a peculiar situation in which you have a unique opportunity to step to the plate, because you understand the details and you know that you can make a difference. It’s foreign to you, and as it happens to be there, you start to build around it without noticing it until the pearl has reached a certain size. It’s almost a form a viral change that happens inside oneself. As far as I’m concerned, it happened during my time in university, when I was studying for my Doctorate of Pharmacy. The students were all fired up because the government was planning to modify the content and duration of the studies without properly assessing the consequences and while ignoring the reality of the situation. All the students were discussing, there were talks of having a strike, but in my prom… nobody was willing to take charge of the coordinated action. I felt that being true to my beliefs was essential, and I volunteered. That was an exhilarating, mind-broadening experience, it allowed me to work with great people and even after so many years, I can still reflect upon this experience and take stock from it.
From that point onward and if you’re interested in soft topics, you begin to consciously nurture it until you get to a full necklace of leadership experiences (okay, that’s the end of the pearl metaphor). To reach a superior level, one can benefit from the support of leadership development architects, as I did. I’ve found myself in varying situations, with multicultural teams, which I had sometimes to manage remotely, in companies of very different cultures and values. Each situation was presenting a specific set of challenges which had to be addressed in a tailored way. This is when I had the wonderful luck to meet a fantastic person; a great mind and a true leader who’s build his business around supporting other leaders.
For that reason, and also because all four occasions I had to work with Leandro Herrero yielded great successes and helped me each time to shape the adequate leadership signature, I’d strongly recommend getting to know this man and reading his books, such as Leader with Seven faces, Viral Change or Homo Imitans, to name a few.
The third lesson is that you draw a lot of positive and outbound energy when you exercise leadership and it yields an impact. Any impact for that matter, as the leader is expecting some form of signal, the famous feedback loop, so as to adjust its approach to a given situation, and the whole process is functioning along the principles of information management.
The leader must keep his ears and eyes wide open. Nothing replaces a heightened degree of attention and the so-called “sixth sense” of great leaders is in fact the ability to identify very subtle cues after years of honing of one’s sense of observation.