Four techniques for developing your leadership ‘muscle’

Written by Professor Karise Hutchinson Tuesday 27 October 2020
Like all muscles, leadership needs exercise. And sometimes that exercise will hurt.
Bird's eye view of weights in a gym

Crisis has a habit of showing up leadership and the COVID19 pandemic is no exception. The why or value of strong leadership has never been so important; its significance resonates both in the public sphere and boardroom. Now more than ever we understand that the ability of a leader not only determines the impact of a team or organisation, but a country’s response to, and recovery from, crisis.

The pandemic has also shone a light on what leadership really is; in fact, always was.  It has proved that people follow people, not status or power. Not only have key workers become front-line leaders, but in local communities young and old have stepped up and out to lead. The result? Leadership has become more human and accessible than ever before. Manifest beyond title, status, power and traditional stereotypes, descriptors such as authenticity, generosity, empathy, and kindness are rewriting the story of what strong leadership is and should be.

As society navigates recovery from this crisis, the how of leadership is really under the spotlight. The existence of leadership ability is in many ways like a muscle. We all have it, but strength (characterised by positive influence and impact sustained over time) is determined by how the muscle is exercised. If the biggest ability of leadership is responsibility, then leaders regardless of age, culture or context need to make ‘leadershift’ (John Maxwell). In other words, take some time to think about shift; and about how to exercise the leadership muscle every day.

A common myth is that leadership is a destination. In reality, it is a journey and a continuous act of becoming. So, here are four leadership “exercises” to help leaders develop strength along the way:

  • The focus shift
  • The mental shift
  • The habit shift
  • The resistance shift
  • The focus shift: from me to we

The focus shift: from me to we

Leadership is not about the leader, but it starts with the leader. Before embarking on an exercise, leaders must first find the starting line – self-awareness. Self-aware leaders are better equipped to connect and collaborate inside and outside their organisation if they are willing to look in the mirror, take time to listen and respond to feedback.  Accountability will help leaders make this shift. There is no doubt that stress and anxiety can make leaders more risk-averse and less likely to seek out different perspectives in a crisis. But Harvard research from the 2008 financial crisis revealed that the degree of collaboration by leaders during the crisis and recovery had a significant impact on how the organisation and its people thrived (HBR, 2020). So, the lesson of this exercise is simple: there is no room for ego-centric leadership or ‘me-ship’ for organisations large or small, now or ever.

Top tip: The only time as a leader you should use the word “I” is when making tough decisions where the consequences ultimately rest on you. The rest of the time use “we”.

The mental shift: from what we do to who we are

Before a leader embarks on a strength exercise programme it is important to engage the brain – also known as the mind muscle connection. The mental shift helps to create the right environmental conditions for personal and professional development and growth. It involves considering the wider aspects of leadership health such as sleep, water intake, food, stress and rest. Taking the time to look beyond what needs to be done and reflecting on who we are becoming in the journey. In this crisis, people across the world have encountered profound personal and professional disruption, the status quo eliminated and the autopilot switched off. For leaders even now, the uncertainty is frightening; the pace of change is breathtaking. But leaders cannot have it all and do it all, not now, not ever. Much like strength training, the critical lesson for leaders is the necessity of building in time to reflect, rest and recover in order to be strong for the journey.

Top tip: Allocate time for white space on a weekly basis – read this article by Sabina Nawaz.

The habit shift: from keeping the status quo to embracing the disruption

It is well known that both the frequency and consistency of exercise builds the muscle. While there is no quick fix to keeping fit, there is also no quick fix to leadership growth.  Small decisions and actions performed every day form habits, often unconsciously, but determine the leader’s permanent state of being. There is a science to understanding habits; how to eliminate bad ones and start new ones. But, to grow the leadership muscle, it is self-awareness that will fuel the conscious and targeted effort to understand natural strengths and abilities, as well as what needs to improve. Bottom line, leaders need to disrupt themselves before someone or something else does it for them. The leadership lesson in this exercise is to remember that those who develop and sustain new habits will avoid the comfort of the status quo and be ready for disruption when it comes.

Top tip: It is easy to hear the voices we want to hear, so take time to listen for what you don’t want to hear. The next time a problem arises, take time to consider a range of diverse perspectives and monitor the result.

The resistance shift: from avoiding fear to embracing failure

Many leaders want change but not always to change. As human beings we are hardwired to resist change; our brain desires predictability and our emotions crave stability. Yet in this crisis, we have witnessed the power of human nature, the ultimate adaptation machine (Tom Bilyeu). Whether it is crisis-induced change, failure, or disappointment, it can hurt. Much like exercise. But to avoid taking risks because of the fear of failure is not an option – all great leaders know the greatest learning is found in hard times. History teaches failure is inevitable in business. Nevertheless, leaders who learn from their mistakes and add these lessons to their personal toolkit are better equipped to push the boundaries of their own growth and that of their teams and organisations.

Top tip:  Ask yourself, how do you respond to failure or disappointment? Write down the result, then ask a critical friend or two for their perspective.

As society navigates recovery from this crisis, we are recovering the real meaning of great leadership. We don’t want superhuman leaders. We want human leaders. Strong from the inside out. Let’s not wait for another crisis to learn this lesson and let’s not revert back to stereotypes. Remember, we all have the muscle to be the change and make the change the world needs. We just need to make the leaders shift and do some exercise!

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Professor Karise Hutchinson FCMI is Professor of Leadership, Ulster University Business School.

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