Most us have notions and assumptions about what leadership is and what an ideal leader is like. We might have picked these up from cultural norms and stereotypes, from something we read, or from our own experiences.
The academic term for this is Implicit Leadership Theory and each of us has one. Often these go unexamined. And while harmless most of the time, some of these notions can limit our development.
Towards the waning stages of his 65 year consulting career, Peter Drucker wrote an award winning HBR article in 2004 titled What Makes an Effective Executive.
In the article he outlined eight of what he called practices that were common amongst effective leaders regardless of their other traits:
An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used.
Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history.
Similarly, some of the best business and nonprofit CEOs I’ve worked with over a 65-year consulting career were not stereotypical leaders.
They were all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses. They ranged from extroverted to nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious.
What made them all effective is that they followed the same eight practices:
1. They asked, “What needs to be done?”
2. They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
3. They developed action plans.
4. They took responsibility for decisions.
5. They took responsibility for communicating.
6. They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
7. They ran productive meetings.
8. They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”
The first two practices gave them the knowledge they needed. The next four helped them convert this knowledge into effective action.
The last two ensured that the whole organization felt responsible and accountable.
Towards the end of the article he added a ninth:
We’ve just reviewed eight practices of effective executives. I’m going to throw in one final, bonus practice. This one’s so important that I’ll elevate it to the level of a rule: Listen first, speak last.
The best part is how he emphasizes that effectiveness as a leader is more of a discipline and a practice that can be learned, and not based on talent that we were born with.
Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All they have in common is that they get the right things done. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent.
Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.
Regardless of what implicit theory of leadership we might have, it’s worth noting that effectiveness in leadership can be learned as any other skill. This also puts the onus of developing ourselves squarely on our own shoulders.
What implicit leadership theory are we currently carrying? When is the last time we challenged these assumptions? Do they limit us or do they enable us?