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To inspire a team that plays at its highest level is not just about what you say and do, but about what you say and do with yourself first (iStockPhoto)
To inspire a team that plays at its highest level is not just about what you say and do, but about what you say and do with yourself first (iStockPhoto)

The path to being a real leader starts at your door

It is clear that what a great leadership experience brings to an organization is priceless

How many of you have worked for a good leader? And what did it feel like?

Whenever I ask this question, in a workshop or at a talk, many hands go up. Many want to share. As they speak, you can see their faces light up as they are transported to another time. They often speak deliberately, trying to describe a time that had a great deal of personal meaning for them.

They often speak of a boss who trusted them even before they trusted themselves. They speak of a time when they surprised themselves by finding out they were capable of far more than they realized. Perhaps their boss gave them space to discover what they could do. Or, perhaps their boss pushed them to do better till they did.

Either way, these are often episodes of discovery, of growth, of reaching new heights. And they are episodes that shaped the way they thought and felt about themselves. The joy you see on their faces comes from discovering personal strengths previously unknown.

It is clear that people cherish these experiences. It is also clear that what a great leadership experience brings to an organization is priceless. Which organization doesn’t dream of being able to inspire its people to accomplish more than what they thought they could?

But, there’s more. Such experiences create a template in people’s minds of what good leadership looks like. When we watch good leadership in action, we learn the big and small acts to become better leaders ourselves. This is why some organizations are able to build a continuous stream of leaders, while others build hardly any.

Good leaders can build other leaders in ways no leadership training can. It is hard to develop good leadership in organizations where there isn’t any.

Yet, everywhere we look, good leaders are actually rare. Not everyone has a leadership story to share. Perhaps they never had the chance to work with one. Even those who had may have just a few stories to share at the end of their careers.

Why is leadership so rare? There is no absence of leadership training. Organizations routinely spend millions on developing leaders. There is also no dearth of books on leadership.

The answer, I suspect, lies with how much we underestimate the inner work of leadership.

To inspire a team that plays at its highest level is not just about what you say and do, but about what you say and do with yourself first.

To see the capabilities in others, you first have to recognize them in yourself. To create an environment that brings out the best in others, you first need to know what that looks like for yourself. To inspire others, you first need to know what that even feels like.

Then comes the hardest part of leadership, courage. Courage is the capacity to do the right thing when you aren’t entirely sure how that will play out. It is about having a voice where it counts. It is what inspires others to join you where you are headed.

Yet courage means making peace with our own fears. Often when we think of courage, we think of the big things, like the stories of Jamsetji Tata challenging the British and building the railways, or Steve Jobs going against the common wisdom of the time to create visionary products.

But it is equally there in the small things—speaking up for others who may not be present in the room, or confronting bad behaviour, or betting on someone who has yet to prove themselves.

It takes inner work to become someone others can trust, to not be threatened by the abilities of others, and to hold the space for others to become great. Yet this inner work is so rarely acknowledged. Only a few leadership writers, most notably Warren Bennis in On Becoming A Leader, speak about it. As do very few organizational leaders. Yet in our hearts we know this is where the real journey of leadership begins.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development speaker and consultant who helps leaders build future-ready organizations.

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