Learning Leadership: You Have To Believe In Yourself

Leadership is a skill to be mastered, not a quality people are born with. So how can you become a great leader?

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Leadership is a skill to be mastered, not a quality people are born with. So how can you become a great leader?


Learning Leadership: You Have To Believe In Yourself

Leadership is a skill to be mastered, not a quality people are born with. So how can you become a great leader?

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Everyone, including you, is born with the capacity to lead. Leaders have an enormous impact on the engagement and performance of their constituents. And, you are already leading, just not frequently enough.

Do you believe these statements? Do you believe deep down that you are capable of becoming a better leader tomorrow than you are today?

These are not trivial questions. They get to the heart of the matter. They get to the very belief that you have about yourself.

Learning to lead all starts with what you think of yourself and the assumptions you feed. Learning to lead is about discovering what you value, what inspires you, what challenges you, what gives you energy, and what encourages you. When you discover these things about yourself, you’ll also know more about what it takes to lead those qualities out of others.

The very best education—whether it’s in school or the workplace—is never about thrusting information or skills into people. In the end that just won’t work. The best education is about bringing out, sometimes even liberating, what is already there. It’s about releasing the potential that exists inside the learner.

Sure, every leader has to learn the fundamentals and the discipline, and there are periods during which you’re trying out many things you know nothing about and you have no idea what will work and what won’t. There are times when you copy others and absorb a lot of information from the outside.


Sometimes, leadership is about drawing out your natural qualities

These are necessary stages in your development as a leader. The point is that you can’t begin to do any of these things until you truly decide that inside of you is a person who can make a difference and provide leadership.

As a fourth grader in Nashville, Melissa Poe Hood became concerned about the environment, and decided to do something about it.

She started a club in 1989 called Kids F.A.C.E. (Kids For A Clean Environment), which is today the world’s largest youth environmental organization, with more than 300,000 individual members in 2,000 club chapters located in 15 countries. Looking back on that experience two decades later, Melissa noted that:

“Change begins in your own backyard, no matter your age or your size. I had no idea that one simple action could change my life so much. Most journeys start this way, with simple motivation and a choice to do something or not.

"You never know where one step will take you, and you never know where the next one will lead. The difference with being a leader is that you take the step; you take the journey. The greatest obstacle you will ever encounter is yourself.”

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't lead

But it’s not just what you tell yourself that can keep you from exercising leadership. All too often, what others tell you influences you to give up. In fact, one of the most adverse consequences of the talent myth is that, if interpreted rigidly, it inhibits people from attempting to become leaders.

Told that leadership is limited to only a few with the special talent for leading, people can conclude that they can’t learn it, and so they don’t attempt it—or they give up once they find that it’s not easy, or they blame it on the lack of talent.

Don’t let yourself become one of those people who doesn’t try. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t lead.

In a series of classic experiments, professors Albert Bandura and Robert Wood documented that self-efficacy—defined as an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to produce specific actions— affects people’s performance.

One group of managers was told that decision making was a skill developed through practice: The more one worked at it, the more capable one became.

"Don’t let yourself become one of those people who doesn’t try. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t lead."

Another group of managers was told that decision making reflected their basic intellectual aptitude—the higher their underlying cognitive capacities, the better their decision-making ability. Working with a simulated organization, both groups of managers dealt with a series of production orders requiring various staffing decisions and establishing different performance targets.

Managers who believed that decision making was a skill that could be acquired set challenging goals for themselves— even in the face of difficult performance standards—used good problem-solving strategies, and fostered organizational productivity.

Their counterparts, who didn’t believe they had the necessary decision-making ability, lost confidence in themselves as they encountered difficulties. Over multiple trials, they lowered their aspirations for the organization, their problem solving deteriorated, and organizational productivity declined.


Leadership is a skill to be learned, not an innate quality

Another important finding from these studies was that the managers who lost confidence in their own judgments dealt with this by finding fault with others. They were quite uncharitable about their employees, regarding them as not capable of being motivated and unworthy of much supervisory effort. If given the option, the managers reported that they would have fired many of these employees.

Of course, everyone has limitations as well as strengths. And learning to lead isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, it’s hard work but definitely doable. What we are saying is that you shouldn’t give in to your limitations or accept them as permanent.

When you doubt yourself, confront this feeling, and then do something to acquire the skills needed to handle a similar encounter in the future. That’s the essence of learning!

Self-coaching action

In leadership, as in sports, there’s a mental side to the endeavor. So here’s what you need to do. Every morning as you prepare for your day, tell yourself, “Who I am, what I do, and how I do it make a difference.” And then ask yourself, “Today, what will I do that matters?”

Whatever it is, make sure you tell that person in the mirror that you believe you can make a positive difference in the world. Go one step further: Write your answer to this question down, and have it with you on your mobile phone or at your desk as a reminder available throughout your day.

This is an edited extract from Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (published by Wiley, May 2016).

Barry Z. Posner is Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. James M. Kouzes is the Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

They have been working together for more than 30 years, studying leaders, researching leadership, conducting leadership development seminars, and serving as leaders themselves in various capacities.

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Learning Leadership: You Have To Believe In Yourself

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