Great leaders spend years honing their skills. They become adept observers of human behavior. They learn along the way by watching other leaders fail as well as succeed. The process is one of trial and error, formalized training and growing maturity over time – in other words, one of evolution.
You won't find these secrets in a book. There is no magic potion or quick fix. And even your smartphone won't help you with this one. Apps might be able to speak to you as a unique consumer, but there never will be an app for leadership.
This is one of my all-time favorite client stories. I was facilitating a large group of senior leaders and during the break, a participant came up to me and asked if I would be his leadership coach. He told me that he had decided to retire in a year's time after a successful 30-year career.
I was curious as to what coaching I could offer him. After all, if it were me my head would be full of exciting plans for the next stage of my life. This leader was revered by his organization, had tremendous ability to attract followers, and had mentored many others. Was there truly anything to learn at this point? So I asked him. His answers might surprise you. They shocked me.
As they approach retirement, some leaders start to worry about the legacy they will leave and the lessons they might impart to the next generation of leaders. But that wasn't the sort of legacy that interested this man. What he wanted to do was to stimulate thinking. He wanted to understand where these young leaders see the world going and how they think they might improve their world through their roles and lines of business. "They are the spark, the platform and the igniters," he told me. "My role is just to stoke the fire, not build the fire."
I was stunned. The essence of this man was profound humility. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding assignments I have ever had.
I still wonder what benefit this client received from my coaching. But I'm in no doubt at all about the things he taught me – and he taught me a lot. The meaning of leadership was reflected in his ability to push boundaries. He demanded that those around him challenge the status-quo. He encouraged them never to stop asking great questions.
Leaders are generally seen as pushing their teams to the outer edges of their thinking. It is also the case that leaders position themselves to be challenged by others and see reverse mentoring as a vehicle for growth.
Above all, he showed me that there is no pre-ordained template that leaders could tap into for wisdom. Much of leadership is based upon cultivating relationships and understanding unique drivers. As another executive once told me, "I recognize I need to have a different leadership style depending not just on the business issue at hand but rather on each stakeholder and what resonates for them."
In other words, as a leader your input should be shaped by the needs of your constituents. This requires flexibility and fluid thinking, not a quick fix. No app - no matter how great - has this kind of agility!
Adults and children alike should always be both seen and heard because they teach us almost everything - or if not everything, at least most of what is essential to life. This has far greater currency then any formalized qualification or training program designed to teach leadership.
So use your powers of observation, ask great questions and always hone your ideas within the context of multiple perspectives.