“learn from the experts.” This is the standard advice for getting better at most anything. Identify the best in class (The BIC) for whatever you are doing or want to do, and then follow his or her lead.
But how do you do that, given that neither you nor I is likely to have personal access to The BIC for anything we decide to pursue, hope to get better at?
That one is pretty easy. We read his or her book, since The BIC in nearly any area most always has written a book, and usually more than one. We also will likely have little trouble finding an article, blog, podcast, YouTube video or an interview featuring The BIC. Whatever the media, the keys to his or her success are close at hand, with only a little digging on our part.
But maybe not….
If checking in with The BIC and following his or her lead works for you or even seems like it might work for you, go for it. My experience assures me that it can’t hurt anything. That experience also assures me that reading the books and listening to the interviews are unlikely to ramp up your game nearly as much as the hype that accompanies the media promises. An anecdote may or may not be helpful. You decide.
About fifteen years or so ago, I decided that ramping up my leadership game would be a good idea. At that time, my leadership was adequate but certainly not best in class. I personally knew at least a couple of people who were more skilled leaders, from my perspective.
A quick review of the literature told me that just who is The Leadership BIC is definitely up for debate, but those who think they are in the running are not in short supply. That was true then and is no less true now. Since I doubt that there is not just one leader who deserves the title, I group those near BIC status as leadership gurus.
With this in mind, I committed to reading a hundred guru written books on leadership. That, I thought, was a nearly certain way of ramping up my leadership game, perhaps even to the guru status. How silly of me, thinking I could read my way to guru.
It was certainly an interesting experience and did ramp up my game. It was just that it didn’t help my leadership performance all that much. I didn’t become a noticeably better leader. What I did become was a significantly better leadership talker. I could talk the leadership talk with the best of them.
Had I been motivated, I could have written my own leadership book and then joined the book-article-podcast-YouTube-interview circuit. I was well-qualified to represent myself as a leadership guru. I was not necessarily a better leader; but I could definitely play the guru game.
My only real limitation was that I wasn’t a successful CEO of a mega organization, a winning coach, a famous personality, a victorious general or eminent scholar from a prestigious university. Those tags automatically certify one as a highly skilled leader, although – to quote my grandpa – “It ain’t necessarily so.”
The “a little better” principle….
If tapping into the wisdom of the leadership gurus did not result in my leadership game noticeably ramping up, what accounts for my leadership skills improving over time? As with most of us as we do most anything over time, I became a more effective leader the more time and effort I invested in leading. Sure, this is largely a self-assessment; but even so, it’s rather apparent that I was a better leader at sixty-five than I was at twenty-five. Let me simply hope that this fits in an obvious way with your experience and the point of this post resonates for you.
My leadership skills have improved through trial and error; and I have assuredly made my fair share of leadership errors. The improvement came not as much through learning from the errors as through learning to avoid the errors in the first place. When some action of mine didn’t have the outcome I wanted, I spent less time trying to figure out why it hadn’t worked and most time and energy thinking about what would work the next time.
Here is the secret sauce for me. Starting when I was just getting into management, I became friendly with an older and more experienced manager just down the hall from me. Joe wasn’t a guru or at least he didn’t think of himself as a guru. Even so, I knew that he was a better manager than I was – not a lot better but definitely a little better. The same was true for his leadership skills. I now know that he was a lot better at management and leadership than I was at the time; but I was twenty-five and thought I was better at both than I actually was.
Joe and I spent time talking about our work. More to the point, I spent time telling Joe about the things I was dealing with and he mostly listened. Now and then, he would make a comment or observation about what I had done or was doing. The key take-away is that he never asked me “why” I did this or that dumb thing. His question was always, “How will you handle it the next time that kind of thing comes up?”
As I think back, Joe was only one of several people who I got to know over the years who were a little better at leading than I was –a little better, a little wiser. It took a while, but I eventually realized that there are always people who I know or can get to know who are a little better, a little wiser than I am, no matter how much my insights and skills improve. I get better and wiser a little at a time; and getting to know people who are a little ahead of me is my best way to keep progressing.
If I were a leadership guru, I would just tell you the steps and key take-aways I have determined are the keys to leadership success. You would then be expected to take those keys and open the door to your certain success as a leader, as a person of wisdom. But since I’m not a leadership guru or any other brand of guru, the best I can do is to offer a possibly useful suggestion.
Check around to identify someone who is a little better, a little wiser than you are today in your area of interest. Invest some time and effort in cultivating a relationship with him or her that will give you the occasional opportunity to talk about what you are doing, how you are doing things, or other aspects of your shared interest. Although I can’t guarantee that you will get better and wiser, If you listen carefully, remember what is said and think about your conversations now and then, I think it’s pretty certain that you will indeed get better and wiser. Even if you don’t, the time will still have been worth the effort. You will at least have someone interesting to hang out with now and then.