In my most recent blog, I made the case that leaders must first establish a relationship with themselves as the basis for leading others. On the journey toward self-knowledge and self-acceptance, you quickly realize that you have your own unique way of being in the world. Sure, you may share some qualities with other people, but your overall package is different from the rest.
How do you become more familiar with your own unique way of being in the world? By focusing on your character.
Character is defined as a “psychological system of personal traits, an evaluation of a particular individual’s moral qualities and a disposition to express behavior in consistent patterns across a range of situations.” As leaders are guided in discovering the various aspects of their character, they begin to see how these parts fit together (or not), what they accept about themselves (or not), and what more they can tap within themselves to lead more fully and authentically.
My work with leaders to help them better understand their character focuses on four key areas: self-awareness, energy (or drive), people skills, and practical insight. I refer to these four areas as the skills of character; they constitute the foundation upon which your leadership is based.
Most of our preparation for leadership focuses on gaining knowledge and experience. But the greatest impact leaders have on their world comes through knowing and experiencing who they are and how they show up—it derives more of the being than the doing part of leading. The skills of character help people connect to this being dimension.
Let’s begin with the skill of self-awareness. Although we live within ourselves from moment to moment, many leaders find that there is a lot about themselves that they are not aware of. This was certainly the case with one of my clients, whom I’ll call Dave. Interestingly, the more he examined himself, the less Dave considered himself to be a leader. (He wasn’t alone in this belief; many leaders have a similar view of themselves. In his zeal for knowing and doing, Dave would take on whatever was necessary to get the job done.
One day, however, Dave realized that what he was doing was no longer working. He was a technical guru; his knowledge of the business, coupled with his ability to translate that knowledge in to new service offerings, had won Dave a promotion to a higher-level position. But now Dave was out of his comfort zone: he was being asked to apply his vast knowledge across three critical functions that he was not very familiar with: product development, marketing, and sales. Dave responded to this challenge by leading in the same way that he did when he was in his comfort zone: he shared his technical knowledge.
As we become aware of our own perception of ourselves, we are better able to see how we are showing up for others and how they are responding to us. Dave gradually came to see that his new role called for leading people whose knowledge and experience were very different from his. What they needed from him was not his knowledge but his understanding of the possibilities for applying that knowledge.
As his self-awareness deepened, Dave realized that the leadership challenge he now faced was no longer about what he knew and what he could do—it was about how he could engage others. So he started to ask questions instead of sharing more ideas. As he learned more about what his team members could do, he began to frame for the team possible ways of putting their capabilities to use.
The demands of leadership require more than depth of experience and a track record of doing important work. If your prior success has been a function of what you know—your technical expertise—then you’ll probably feel unprepared when you’re catapulted into the world of leading. You’ll find yourself asking, “What else do I need to know? What more do I need to do?”
You won’t find the answers to these questions in books or seminars—you’ll find them within you.
The Action Plan
• Begin to observe who you are in your leading—when things go well and when things go badly. What are the feelings and insights that you get about yourself as a leader? Do you even see yourself as a leader?
• Who are the leaders that capture your attention? What do those leaders stir up within you? What is it that you deeply admire (or dislike) about them, and why?