How Do Leaders Improve?

There’s something to be said for taking a question and rolling it over and over in your mind for a long period of time without being in a hurry to settle on the answer. Sometimes I can be tempted to answer a question quickly—too quickly, perhaps, because I want to move on to the next issue. It’s the way I am wired, and there’s a place for that. But sometimes it’s better to let the question linger and to throw it into the mix of what you’re reading, who you are talking to, and what you are doing until you accumulate enough information that you can sort it out and see the reoccurring themes.

For a long time, I’ve been thinking on this question:  “How do leaders improve?” I often hear people say, “We need more leaders.” Almost inevitably, they are not in a position to simply go find more (a.k.a. “better”) leaders. For various reasons, what they really need is for the people that they have to be better at leading. They need their leaders to improve.

Admittedly, I am still processing this question, and maybe I always will be; but at the moment, I’ve landed on four things that I believe are essential, not just helpful, for leaders to improve.

  1. Information. Whether it’s in the form of a book, classrooms, videos, or through casual conversation, information is catalytic. Some sentence, some model, some analysis, some idea creates a spark in a growing leader, and he/she thinks, “I never thought of it like that.”  Game on!
  2. Coaching/Mentoring. Everyone needs a coach, and everyone needs a mentor. They serve different roles, but to really improve, we need both.  Most organizations need to take coaching/mentoring much more seriously if they really want their leaders to improve.
  3. Experience. At the end of the day, leadership is like swimming. You can’t learn it from reading a book. It seems obvious, right? However, I see a lot of organizations that want to develop leaders, but they rarely give them a chance to lead because, “They might make a mistake.” You think?  Of course! All the potential in the world means nothing unless given an opportunity.
  4. Self-reflection. This presumes that a leader is self-motivated to improve. However, I have noticed that a leader can be motivated, and yet without practicing this important discipline, his/her growth will be minimal. A person has to look back at how he/she performed in each leadership situation and relentlessly critique it, not unlike the way a professional athlete watches game film.

What are your thoughts about developing leaders? What have you seen that is essential to helping leaders really improve? I would love to hear from you!

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

2 responses

  1. My experience has been that the specific element that makes Leaders so rare is that a Leader is truly focused on goals outside of their personal benefit. Not many people, as Maslow would say, become “actualized”. To develop more Leaders, we must develop more people who are truly driven by “noble goals” not “personal benefit”.
    That is the cornerstone. Without it, mentoring, training, etc. will not matter.

    1. Wow. That’s great insight, David! Thanks for your comment.

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