Thursday, June 25, 2009

developing one's leadership

I am a fanatic for studying Abraham Lincoln’s leadership – I try to read most of what I can get my hands on, and attempt to keep up with the myriad of new works coming out, especially during this bicentennial year of his birth. A recent read was Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln, which ended up being a study in Lincoln’s own leadership development. White writes from a perspective that examines how Lincoln developed his thought and his ability to make decisions. Each of the experiences throughout his lifetime formed a part of that which I call Lincoln’s leadership ability.

One of the most influential aspects of Lincoln’s leadership development was his ability to learn – whether it was from reading, from talking with others, or from experiences. Lincoln was a self-taught individual. He read everything he could (often multiple times) and engaged people in conversation who were always much smarter than him. How often do we as leaders do the same thing? Being in a position of leadership can seem so time intensive that it becomes difficult to read and re-read important texts. Another downfall of being in a leadership position is that one can become so self-absorbed that it is difficult to ask for help from someone else (especially someone we consider smarter than ourselves). Here are a few ideas to consider as we continue the process of developing ourselves as leaders:

1. Take the time to readBrain Tracey noted in a recent newsletter that people in leadership positions need to take the following time to do no work: 1 day each week; 3 days in a row each month; and at least 2 solid weeks each year. When I have those days, I read – sometimes in my field, but more often than not outside my field.
2. Never spend a lunch by yourself – One’s calendar should be full of lunch appointments with people smarter than themselves. If you cannot get out of the office, find someone within the office that does something very different from you, sit with them at lunch, and ask them to explain what they do. Be ready to ask a bunch of questions…and then try to apply what you learn to leadership issues.
3. READ, READ, READ (part 1) – read widely and outside your field of expertise. One of the best ways to do this is to browse the magazine section of your favorite bookstore and purchase one on a topic you know nothing about. Read it thoroughly and see if you can learn anything about leadership. Be sure to also scan the NY Times best sellers list in all categories at least once a month and see what others are reading.
4. READ, READ, READ (part 2) – someone once mentioned to me that if I read one book a week on a particular subject, that would mean that within one year, I would have read 52 books on that subject, making me an expert in that particular area. If I did that for 5 years in a row, I would have read 260 books on that subject, making me a world-renown expert on that subject. In which subject do you want to become an expert?
5. READ, READ, READ (part 3) – someone else once mentioned that we only have a certain number of hours to read during our lifetime, so we should spend time only on those texts that have stood the test of time (his cutoff point was 450 years, so it could include Shakespeare). Are you reading the great books – those that changed the world? For starters, check out Martin Seymour-Smith’s list of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.
6. Become self-reflective – This is perhaps the most difficult part of learning for those who lead, because in order to be self-reflective, time and honesty are both needed. I have found that blogging has been my way to self-reflect on issues of leadership. Others journal; still others have coaches, mentors or accountability groups.

If in the midst of a Civil War Abraham Lincoln could take time to read and listen to people who were smarter than him (see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for an excellent study on this aspect of Lincoln’s leadership), why can’t we?

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