Changing your Leadership Practices at Work

Wiser folk than me make a clear distinction between management work and leadership work. Some define management work as about accomplishing tasks and leadership work about relationship-based inspiration and energising of people. Others define management as about coping with complexity and leadership as about coping with change.

Leadership can perhaps be best summarised as changing how people are at work. Taking that as so, individual leaders need to initially focus on changing how they themselves are at work in order to be authentic and perceived as credible by those they lead.

Our learning and development experience tell us that leaders find changing themselves extraordinarily difficult to do. Across the many leadership development programmes we have run we see high levels of engagement in, and learning about, leadership ideas, tools and methods but quite a drop off when it comes to personal application of these in the workplace.

When asked, many leaders in training cite lack of time and lack of resources to try new approaches as principal reasons for failing to apply new leadership learning at work. For our money, these are excuses, not reasons. We know this, simply because in the same workplace and circumstances some leaders excel at applying new leadership learning at work, and some fail.

Changing your own leadership practices at work is central to increasing your impact on the practices of your team. And it is how you make an impact on the wider organisational culture; leading your organisation towards a universal leadership culture. In order to have these leadership influences there are several quite simple habits you need to adopt. Once you have these off you are up and running as an authentic and effective leader in all the contexts you find yourself in. Of course, changing habits is never easy; but you will already know that persistence pays off.

We think, firstly, that many who are new to leadership learning don't get that their leadership is about how they interact with their team; interacting both with knowledge about how each team member is, and purposefully to achieve better outcomes. Leaders need to find out about their team's lives, families, preferences and motivators. Such knowledge only comes from being interested in and in relationship with each team member. So, first step is to engage interpersonally with each team member. Show up, show interest, and listen. Failure to get into this habit in a meaningful way relegates your leadership from an on-going productive relationship to a mechanical task that you perform from time to time. Many of the leaders we know who have fallen into just this trap don't succeed in leadership. They take refuge in performing operational tasks and are simply not available for their people. We'd go so far as to say that if you are not interested in the people in your team you should not step forward into a leadership role.

We think secondly, you need to be up for changing yourself. If you are not in the habit of changing your own practices, how is it reasonable for you to expect those that report to you to do so? And how else will your team feel comfortable with making a change effort if you, as their role model, do not?

We recognise that for the minority, making personal change is not an option – namely those with a mindset that is highly satisfied with who they are and what they do; everyone else needs to change, but not them. Those with such fixed mindsets are not available candidates for change and, consequently make for poor leaders. The lucky many with an interest in personal growth and change, not surprisingly, have potential for greatness in leadership.

We think, thirdly, leaders need to engage in coach-like conversations; helping others to discover about themselves and to change themselves. Coaching is not about telling others what to do; it is to support their self-awareness and self-motivation. Good leaders turn every workplace conversation into a coaching conversation; good coaching is all about asking really good questions. Coaching models, such as the GROW model, provide an excellent coaching platform, including sets of starter questions for leaders to adopt as their own.

We think, lastly, that the habit of reflective practice is central to good leadership practice. Reflective practice recognises that leadership interventions are purposeful and are hence worthy of some leader preparation. Some forethought about the history, context, appropriate style and language is very helpful. So too is afterthought about how the intervention went and alternatives that might work better for next time. Leaders who have the reflective practice habit continuously enhance their leadership effectiveness through this constant experimenting and learning. Even failed leadership interventions contain valuable learning for the reflective practitioner.

So, in summary, cultivating the four habits of interest in others, openness to personal change, coach-like conversations and a reflective practice habit, is worthy and valuable work for leaders at all levels. Developing these habits should be the core agenda for your own leadership development; they will improve your own leadership practice and your visibility as a leadership role model for those around you at work.