I recently completed teaching a class on project leadership at Franklin University and after the last class one of the students approached me and asked for a bit of advice. Before going any further it is important to note that she is from the United States (I am no sure of her native country as it is did not seem relevant to ask given our conversation).
She told me that she needed to know how she might be able to improve on her leadership and public speaking skills as these were areas of opportunity for her. I asked why she thought this and she proceeded to tell me that her employers had told her she was very good at her job but needed to be more outspoken, forceful, and self-promoting in order to make the step to the next level in her career. I asked her why she thought she was viewed as more timid and she said that in her culture, acting like this (as she had been told she needed to) would be viewed negatively. It would be viewed as arrogant and boisterous and not the type of behavior that would be rewarded.
I gave her some ideas (like Toastmasters) for the public speaking piece but then also suggested that she be careful when trying to change who she was without first reflecting on her goals and truly evaluating the feedback. I told her the next time someone gives her the general feedback of “you need to work on your leadership skills” or “you need to become more comfortable speaking in front of people” that she thank them for their feedback but then follow-up by asking for specific points on which to work. I believe we (the royal “we” – as in all of us) tend to use sweeping generalities when providing feedback and say things like, “you need to be more strategic, you need to be more authoritative, you need to stand up for yourself, you need to let people know you are doing a good job”, & on and on. The problem with this is that we do not provide details on exactly what we are talking about and also do not connect it with why they should do it. Most importantly, we often do not take into account the personality of the person we are talking to and determine if this is even something they can (or should) strive to accomplish.
Returning back to the young lady from my class, this is the very core of the conversation we had. I asked her why she thought she needed to do this and she expressed her desire to “move up” within the organization. It was clear to her that unless she addressed these opportunities, she would not be promoted to any managerial position. Here begins the thought on “myopic leadership development”.
- Do we actually continually develop the expectations of leadership or do we settle on the “one right way” in our organization and expect all to conform?
- If we do this, are we losing the ability to learn from others and incorporate new ideas and skills into our future leaders?
- Is “western leadership” always the best? I like the analogy of leadership and the Texas Rangers – “One riot, one ranger”
- Should our concept of leadership be continually evolving as the world continues to shrink so that we can incorporate unique ideas and approaches that were not available before now?
- When was the last time you thought about your definition of leadership and has it changed over the past 18-36 months? Why or why not?
Finally, as we continued to talk she shared with me that her passion was non-profits and she wanted to develop her leadership skills and public speaking so she could either run one or start one some day. It was then she told me that at the every year beginning of the back to school season, she takes whatever money she has been able to save and buys a few backpacks complete with school supplies and sends them home to her village. We talked for a few more minutes and I re-iterated that whatever “improvements” she sought to make in her style needed to align with who she was as a person so that there would be no disconnect in who she was and who she was trying to be.
On my drive home, I continued to think about the conversation and realized there must be something amiss in our leadership expectations if we are telling this young woman she needs to be anything other than who she is in order to lead. How many of us have taken steps on their own to better their village or town? Isn’t there a quiet strength in doing whatever you can to help even though there is no recognition? I think many of us would admit we would follow someone like this young lady who is motivated to act for the greater good even if it is just for one or two children…should we ever use the word “just” when talking about such efforts?
Take some time and reflect on your leadership philosophy and ensure it is incorporating all aspects of being a human being and not just what we see reflected from society. Perhaps the problem is that the concept of leadership is about people but is applied to business. It may just be a matter of perspective? Organizations, businesses, or other inanimate objects cannot be led…leadership is about the hearts of people. Guess that means there are no answers, only more questions.