The ability to lead others begins with self-awareness.
In last November’s issue of iBi, I defined leadership as the act of influencing others. The easiest way to influence others—and the most common—is through the use of management techniques because they allow leaders to feel secure in their position through an element of control over those under their command.
But people don’t want to be controlled. They want to understand the meaning and importance of their work before giving their best effort, and they look to their leader for evidence of that meaning. The ability to lead others begins with an assessment of who you are as a leader and understanding why anyone should accept being led by you. This comes through taking inventory of your values, strengths and weaknesses, and general traits that make you a good leader.
Things vs. People
It’s worth re-emphasizing that management and leadership are totally different functions. Management is concerned with the control of things, a catch-all word to describe the tools and resources necessary to conduct business on a day-to-day basis. Things do not hold any value to an organization unless there is human interaction involved to utilize their benefit. For example, wax, soap, mops and vacuums in a cleaning operation are not useful unless there are humans putting those resources to work. Computers and computer software are useless until a human being sits down and activates them for their intended purpose.
The point is, people manage and control things to realize their value—we don’t lead them. There is no act of influential leadership on the performance of inanimate things; their effectiveness depends on the leadership of humans. Leadership relates to the influence of thoughts and perceptions of those who control things.
Envisioning the Desired Future
If we remove things from the equation of what is necessary for an organization to be successful, all that remains is people. Success with people depends on the abilities of the person in a leadership position. The capacity of a leader to influence others begins with the acceptance of the responsibility of leadership. It means you have a higher degree of recognition as to what makes you a leader, the characteristics you possess that might influence others, and what leading others means to you personally. Leadership of others begins with a firm desire to make your situation or surroundings better than the current state.
Leadership involves the transformation of current conditions into the vision of a desired future. To achieve the desired future, something has to change. If you are not changing something, you are managing it. While some things need to be managed, the status quo does not require leadership. If a person accepts the responsibility of leadership, he or she must also accept that nothing improves without change.
The job of leaders is to bring about change in a manner such that their followers accept the change as real and believable. If an organization is achieving the highest levels of perfection all the time, there is no need for leadership at any position—management alone would suffice. But nothing is perfect. The matters that require change will not transform without human intervention, and the act of influencing change is accomplished through leadership, not management.
Supervisor, foreman, manager, department head, vice-president… all are merely positions. A position in an organization is a thing. It’s the person in the position who brings it to life through the act of leadership. Leadership is an attitude, communicated by the person in the leadership role. That’s why I’m not very fond of the title “manager”: it suggests an individual’s primary function is to manage. But we all know management is not the same as leadership.
Organizational consultant Warren Bennis’ definition of leadership begins with the concept of knowing oneself. Indeed, leadership demands a higher degree of self-awareness. Knowing oneself and the persona you reveal based on your experiences, values and traits are vital to your ability to successfully lead others.
In the late ‘90s, psychologist Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of emotional intelligence. According to him, self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. People with strong self-awareness are not overly critical, nor unrealistically hopeful, but honest with themselves and others. How a person demonstrates personal values, experiences and traits is the foundation that determines whether an individual is perceived as capable of leadership. If you don’t know who you are or the characteristics that make you a leader, you will have a difficult time exemplifying the characteristics necessary to make others want to follow you.
The Spirit Within
Knowing yourself and what has shaped your existence are important parts of the ability of a person to exhibit leadership. The December 2013 issue of this magazine featured women of influence in the area. Each person featured in that issue was asked about their leadership philosophy. Patty Fuchs, president/CEO of Goodwill of Central Illinois, was the most direct in her self-awareness when she stated, “At this point in my life, I realize I can trace the development of my leadership style directly from my life story.” From her life story, she found the values and underlying motivations that generated success in her position and made her worthy of recognition as a leader.
Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, said she strives to make decisions that result in fair solutions. Fairness is obviously an important, dominant value that manifested itself from her life experiences. She went on to say she was not sure if this was a leadership style or a philosophy of life. In my opinion, the concept of a definitive leadership style does not exist; a person’s leadership style is rooted in his or her own life experience and the events that had the most impact. Because nobody’s lives are the same, the basis of one’s leadership style is personal and unique to the individual.
In his book Leadership from the Inside Out, Kevin Cashman says that many people tend to split the act of leadership from the person into some external event. The reality is that leadership isn’t something that magically personifies itself on demand. It comes from a deeper reality of the spirit that resides within us.
What Makes a Leader
The study of leadership has evolved through many different theories as to what makes a leader. It began with the “Great Man Theory” and “Trait Theory” and progressed to “Influence (Charismatic) Theory.” All these theories have given us elements of what a leader is truly made of.
There are recognized traits and characteristics all leaders should possess to some degree. While charisma plays a part in a person’s ability to influence others, today’s leadership theory centers on the personal aspects of emotional intelligence and authenticity. It is the person behind the title who earns respect, not the title itself.
Knowing yourself and what makes you the leader you are—or want to be—are major factors in whether you are viewed by others as someone worth following. A leader’s greatest influence is on those with whom he or she associates directly. It’s through a thorough understanding of self that the qualities of leadership become real and perceptible by others. iBi
Rod Bledsoe is retired from Caterpillar Inc. He has a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.