The common denominators of respected leaders are they never stop learning, and they never stop teaching. Leadership takes a significant commitment to the journey of others. It is fraught with setbacks, mistakes, tough decisions and pride.
The unwavering leadership commitment is to help others take risks, make mistakes, do things wrong and from all that pain to discover the “ah ha” from experience and to improve continually. When an individual makes the decision to assume the responsibility of leadership, regardless of their position, they enter a covenant with the person or team to be honest, frank, at times blunt, vulnerable, humble and to endure through right decisions, bad decisions, mistakes and successes; to freely give away the achievements and shoulder the responsibilities. Leadership is the art of delegating, not abdicating. Just because a leader trusts others with the work does not mean they abandoned their responsibilities for quality and execution.
Close your eyes and picture a person you respected as a leader. Try to capture the problematic conversations they had with you, not just the easy discussions. When was it that you realized this person was investing in you to make you a better person? Was it during a coaching moment? Was during a course correction of a habit, attitude or behavior? Was it through stretching you to discover abilities beyond what you thought you were capable of accomplishing? Was it through a process of helping you identify your blind spots or flaws that others have been willing to overlook? Did they give you all the answers or did they encourage/force you to identify solutions?
I guess that you discovered you were being taught leadership by their willingness to invest the time in you while you struggled to identify answers instead of just giving you the shortcuts. As adults, we learn the best lessons intellectually, through personal observation and experientially, not by just being told what to do and how to do it. This experience of learning by thinking and trying takes time and patience. How often have we experienced an environment where the team lead/manager becomes the exclusive “answer source,” the go-to person that has all the answers. This occurrence is often seen in new managers because they take pride in having the answers to all the questions. But we have also seen this behavior becomes habitual. The reality of leadership development is teaching those being led to think for themselves, not to create an environment of dependency.
Another critical characteristic you may have identified is this respected leader was quick to address the difficult conversations. They didn’t store them up for performance reviews, ignore them or give you a free pass. They addressed mistakes, behaviors or attitudes directly and quickly; in real time. Expert leaders know better than to expect perfection. They have learned we are flawed people that are products of our past. They also know that people don’t screw up on purpose, they make mistakes because of wrong information, a lapse in judgment or inadequate training. Leaders know errors are not the problem; the failure to learn from mistakes is the problem. That is why expert leaders give quick, honest and specific coaching.
Leadership is as much about teaching, coaching and mentoring people to become the best they can be as it is about directing and making decisions. Easy? Never. Important? Absolutely. Patience, tact, listening, asking, hearing and creating feedback loops are all skills leaders consistently use. A leadership mantra might be to create an environment where those being led are learning, growing and stretching every day.