The simple path to leadership
It's easy to make the essentials of leadership too complex. Occam's razor - the principle that basically says: "The simpler, the better" - also applies to leadership. My version of the leadership path comes down to this: The way to lead is to watch where you're going. The path to leadership lies within. Its landmarks are personal commitment, self-awareness and vision.
The first step on the path to leadership is deciding to go somewhere - to take a journey and bring others along. The transforming event is the decision: the personal commitment to make a contribution, whether it's to create change, help others, make a discovery or simply explore the unknown.
For CIOs or CXOs, this commitment might take the form of managing an especially complex project, creating an open-source component to the enterprise architecture or supporting the development of a new product as it is brought to market. Those are ambitious destinations with no obvious road map. But by deciding to go someplace and getting others to go there with you, you become a leader.
The door to leadership opened for me when I was just out of university, with an apparently useless history major and clueless about life. I met a man who told me that no one in his organisation had been able to solve a particular problem. I took him up on the offer. After more than a year of door-to-door sales pitches and test marketing, I put a new magazine on the map. I had just taken the first step on the path to leadership, making a commitment to go somewhere. It transformed my view of myself as a potential leader.
Later, I became part of a small team investigating options for a new business. One day our thinking finally crystallised, and we wrote the name of the future company down on an old yellow legal pad. I remember looking at that name and deciding that, come hell or high water, I would make it a reality.
It doesn't matter what the challenge is. And it doesn't even matter whether you personally take charge. What's important is that you commit yourself consciously to an endeavour, recognising both the risks and potential rewards, and hold yourself accountable for the results.
The second step on the path to leadership is being self-aware. It's watching yourself and how you interact, learning where your strengths and weaknesses lie; watching the path you are on, the danger spots on the road, and what it takes to clear the obstacles ahead; watching where paths diverge, and learning to make choices and live with the consequences; and watching where you are moment-to-moment and in relationship to your overall goal.
"Awareness training" is now a ubiquitous part of leadership training. Every leadership course has some type of self-evaluation or personal diagnostic. Those are all helpful. But the true path to awareness comes from experience and reflection - learning by doing.
The military practises awareness with intensive training and after-action reviews. The medical profession does it with teaching hospitals. Recent research shows that poor performers are typically unaware that they have problems. In contrast, good leaders learn who they need on their team to compensate for their flaws and what types of challenges play to their strengths. With this information, they can decide which situations to avoid, as well as what critical weaknesses they have to shore up.
For instance, most CIOs still come up through the IT ranks. Yet the demands of the CIO position require much more than technical knowledge. Those who have poor communication skills - and refuse to improve them - probably won't be CIOs for long.
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