There are many parallels between physical fitness and leadership fitness. Both are journey’s into self-discovery. They require you to set goals, persevere amidst obstacles and follow a game plan. They also require commitment, passion, initiative and self-awareness. Both have the potential to inspire others, and your best results only come with effort. An important distinction is that the stakes are much higher with leadership.
Peak leadership fitness is about being the best leader you can be. It is aspirational and involves continuously working towards elevated interpersonal and technical skills, adaptability and growth through learning, and delivering consistently positive results. Becoming leadership fit requires strong, accurate self-awareness, frequent and ongoing personal improvement, physical energy, emotional connection, and mental toughness.
“Leadership by its nature is subjective…you are only as good of a leader as those around you perceive you to be. -Timothy J. Tobin
To stand out and make a big impact as a leader, you need to be well-versed in fundamental leadership skills.
Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville are the authors of a new book from Harvard Business Review Press entitled The HBR Leader’s Handbook: Make an Impact, Inspire Your Organization, and Get to the Next Level. The book is a back-to-basics primer for both aspiring and experienced leaders, which describes the fundamental leadership practices: Creating a unifying vision, shaping strategy, building a great team, driving for results, innovating for the future, and leading yourself. The authors, both respected leadership experts and consultants, based the book not only on their own experience but also on interviews with over 40 successful leaders and a review of the most enduring themes and seminal articles that have appeared in Harvard Business Review in the past several decades.
“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” -David Gergen
Why a “back to basics” leadership book now? With so many new leadership books and articles every year, why a new Leader’s Handbook from Harvard Business Review?
Brook: We wrote this book to give the pendulum of “leadership” a needed push back towards its timeless and pragmatic origins: leadership defined as achieving a significant impact by building an organization of people working toward a common goal.
In recent years, leadership as a discipline has expanded to include not just a lot of gimmicky and ephemeral concepts but also a wide variety of basic self-improvement techniques: how to make checklists to order your day, how to stand before an audience to project authority, how to resist the temptations of too much social media. Such advice can be helpful but can distract rising professionals from the bigger picture of why leadership ultimately matters and what they should aspire to. We wanted to take leadership back to its historical meaning and show would-be leaders the value of tried and true practices that can help them make a real difference in whatever they are trying to accomplish with other people.
In addition, getting back to the fundamentals, as we write in our book, will heal several myths or misconceptions that have arisen about leadership: That there’s only one “model” of leadership, based on specific traits and behaviors; that leadership is only about one’s self and character, and not building, inspiring, and aligning an organization; that leadership is so different from “management” that leaders don’t have to understand operations and deliver regular results; that leadership no longer matters in a world of networks and less-hierarchical enterprises. Successful leaders, through history and into the most productive organizations today, demonstrate otherwise.
“Dreaming big and having the courage to pursue those dreams – despite the risk – is essential for leaders. But you also need to get others to share your dreams, vision, and purpose.” -Ron Ashkenas, Brook Manville
Powerful questions will help you learn both about the person you’re speaking with and the subject you’re discussing. You can find out how the person thinks and what is important to them, based upon what they say and don’t say. The more you continue to ask powerful questions, the more you will accomplish both. This confirms George Bernard Shaw’s point: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” So often we fall into a trap in which we believe we understand each other and grasp the concepts being explained, only to later find that it was almost as if we were speaking a different language to one another. Continual probing and on-target questions will help both you and the other person arrive at the best solution and learn more about each other and yourselves.
“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” -George Bernard Shaw
It seems obvious since we spent two chapters discussing the importance of listening, but when a question is asked, allow the other person the time to respond. You want to be sure that thought processing and critical thinking are at play. I had one client who felt that the reason the respondent didn’t answer immediately was that he or she didn’t have an answer. If you want a quick answer, there is a really low probability that you will gain a truly thoughtful answer. If your expectation from a thought-provoking question is a quick answer, you risk the other person being frustrated in a nonproductive way, with you and with themselves.
Powerful questions also satiate your sense of curiosity. When you are curious, you want to learn more andyou will more naturally ask questions in ways that willmaximize the other person’s thinking. When the right question does not come to mind or the person was not clear in what he or she said or was trying to say, you can always respond: “Tell me more about that.” This simple phrase will expand the other person’s thinking as they further verbalize their thoughts and your understanding of what they are saying. When one is not naturally curious, the desire to respect the other person by exploring their thinking provides a solid motivation to ask questions that bring out the person’s best thinking. Instead of saying, “Stay thirsty, my friend,” as Jonathan Goldsmith did in the Dos Equis ads, say to yourself, “Stay curious, my friend.” Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.
“Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.” -Fred Halstead
Powerful questions are perfect for discussing sensitive matters. Asking difficult, tough, or edgy questions can be hard for even the most veteran leaders, but those who want their colleagues and team members to succeed will of course need to ask some from time to time. As a coach, I ask those questions fairly often to bring out my client’s very best thinking. When the person is asked a tough question that reflects on them personally, you will find it interesting, maybe surprising, and rewarding to first ask for their permission to ask a difficult question.
The typical question is simply something like: “May I ask you a tough question about all of this?” (This is one example of when a yes/no question is wise.)
Tough or difficult questions are direct and go to the heart of personal accountability and, at the same time can inspire a higher level of performance. Examples of such questions include: “In retrospect, what could you have done differently to create the outcome we wanted?” or “What was an even better way for you to handle that?” These questions will help them reflect on their decisions and actions, and also on what they can do in the future to improve. A question such as, “What do you need to do to greatly improve this situation?” or “What specifically will you commit to do differently when this or a similar situation arises?” may feel too pointed at first, but it will lead to them being more reflective and thoughtful, help them avoid the same actions in the future, and to grow as a leader. These kinds of pointed questions also demonstrate that you care about them as a person and you care about their success—and they reflect clearly on who is responsible. They have no sense of “gotcha,” which tends to make it about you more than their responsibility.
“When you are curious, you want to learn more and you will more naturally ask questions in ways that will maximize the other person’s thinking.” -Fred Halstead
Don Hutson is a world class public speaker and past President of the National Speakers Association. His decades of experience made him the perfect person to sit down and discuss the art of public speaking.
One of my favorite leadership thinkers is Samuel Bacharach. Not only is he a regular columnist for Inc., an author, and a leadership speaker, but he is also the McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University.
In the last number of years there has been massive growth in books about leadership and trainings in leadership, but one fundamental question is not asked: What is it in an organizational context do we want leaders to accomplish?
If we are going to train and educate people in leadership, it has to be for a purpose. In an organizational context, that focus has to be on the capacity of people to come up with ideas, move ideas, implement them, create change and innovation, and get things done. In this context, what is important to me is pragmatic leadership—that is, the simple and clear tasks of execution. Not execution as global promise but as a series of skills that can be followed and achieved for results.
In The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough, I discussed the micro-political skills that leaders at levels need to move their agenda: creating coalitions, overcoming resistance, negotiating, and establishing credibility. These often-ignored political skills were the focus of this volume.
Over the last three years I have been focusing on the question, “What do I want leaders to accomplish?” In my experience of some forty-odd years, I realize that great leaders are those who begin to have the sense of when their organization becomes stuck, sluggish, and trapped by inertia. Great leaders break inertia. They appreciate the dangers of inertia and do something about it. They also understand that organizations may be sluggish and in the doldrums of inertia, even though they continue functioning. These leaders understand that although inertia may not necessarily lead to immediate failure, inertia may impede their organization’s capacity to reach its potential. Transforming the Clunky Organizationfocuses on the characteristics of organizations that get trapped by inertia and, in turn, suggests leadership skills and strategies leaders can use to overcome sluggishness and inertia.
“Organizations get stuck because of sluggishness and inertia. Great leaders know how to break inertia.” -Samuel Bacharach