Developing as a leader is a lifelong process. Leaders are learners, continually seeking to identify areas for growth and building more capability. Especially as we move to increasing levels of responsibility, we need to continually grow as leaders. There are many facets to leadership, which means that we have different areas in which to grow.
In previous articles on leadership we defined leadership as the ability to influence and we demonstrated some of the ways that good leadership skills can benefit us both in our career and in other areas of our lives. On the job, good leadership can cast a vision and show the way, inspiring others to join us in moving toward common goals. This can lead to more empowerment, better relationships and collaboration, higher levels of satisfaction and productivity, reduced turnover, and other benefits. Beyond the workplace, developing our leadership or influencing skills can help us in our families, communities, organizations, and ministries—in short, everywhere we interact with others.
How do we develop our leadership abilities? There are thousands of books on leadership (2,000 more published every year) and you can find a flood of articles. If all it took was a quick read, the world would be overrun with great leaders and everywhere in our lives we would experience harmonious relationships and positive collaboration. But development in leadership is not that simple and, in fact, can be personally challenging.
In the most recent series of leadership articles we described a “structure” of leadership where character is the foundation, emotional intelligence (EQ) is the framework, mental intelligence (IQ) gives it function, and expertise provides the curb appeal. We can grow our expertise by gathering more knowledge through education and experience. In the area of IQ there is little that we can do to change our natural intelligence but we can marginally improve our cognitive ability, the way that we use our natural intelligence (the ability measured by IQ). But these two elements, IQ and expertise, have the lowest impact on our ability to lead. The real leverage of leadership comes from character and emotional intelligence. These areas require more than a small increase in knowledge in order to grow.
Going back to our definition of character as the virtues, values, and traits that guide our actions, we can see that it isn’t just knowledge that changes or grows our character. Character growth is changing who we are and how we think and behave. Similarly, emotional intelligence can be described as the ability to be aware of and manage emotions in ourselves and in others. Again, it is not just knowledge of EQ that we need but growth in our EQ behavior.
In order to understand how we can grow in the areas of character and EQ we need to understand some neuroscience. Most of our knowledge and reasoning abilities take place in the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, where we store facts and analyze relationships between these facts. Most of our character and emotional intelligence behavior is controlled by another part of our brain, the limbic system. The various parts of the limbic system are the parts that control most of what we do naturally by reflex. We can call the prefrontal cortex the ”thinking brain” and the limbic system the “reacting or reflexive brain.”
Since much of our character and EQ behavior is controlled in the limbic system, to grow in leadership requires retraining our brain or developing new neural pathways. For example, it is a natural reaction for people to step away from negative emotions like conflict. The limbic system generally reacts to negative emotions with the flight, fight, or freeze response. If we want to be an effective leader we need to retrain our brain to lean into negative emotions, so that we seek to understand and resolve conflict, for example.
In order to grow as a leader we need to retrain our brain to deal more positively with many different stimuli. To do so requires a combination of knowledge and practice. The knowledge part is straightforward – there are many books, articles, and seminars that present information on leadership, including the areas of character and EQ. The practice part is more challenging. Two of the more popular tools for growing in character and EQ both require relationships to help us practice and develop. One tool is a cohort leadership development program in which a small group of leaders work together to help each member identify, understand, and reprogram in the area of character and EQ. The other tool that can work either within a cohort program or as a self-directed process is the intentional change model defined by Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University.
The intentional change model is a process of identifying growth areas and developing ways to build new patterns of thought and behavior. In the book “Primal Leadership” by Goleman, Boyatzis and Mckee, the intentional change model is described as five discoveries:
- My ideal self – Who do I want to be?
- My real self – Who am I? What are my strengths and gaps?
- My learning agenda – How can I build on my strengths while reducing my gaps?
- Experimenting with and practicing new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to the point of mastery.
- Developing supportive and trusting relationships that make change possible.
Much of character and EQ lie within us and, as part of our nature, it can be difficult for us to have full awareness. Both the cohort program and the intentional change model rely on relationships with others to help us see the areas for growth and to provide feedback and accountability to reinforce our development as we build new leadership practices.
If you are interested in growing as a leader, PolymerOhio can provide resources and programs that can help you. Contact us for more information.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.