March 3, 2008

Good day, team,

This week’s challenge comes from some thoughts on leadership that I read about in an MIT alumni magazine while visiting my father in Maine. People debate whether great leaders are born or made, and good evidence supports both sides of the argument.

Accordingly, some educational institutions have created programs and curriculum to build their own leaders. For example, the Leadership Center at MIT developed a Four Capabilities Leadership Model. These capabilities are sensemaking, relating, visioning and inventing.

Rather than teaching leadership, which everyone agrees is hard to do, the program teaches students to cultivate these four strengths: Using their common sense when making key decisions, creating strong relationships with others, making their vision a reality, and allowing themselves to be inventive (meaning not fearing to make mistakes or fail).

“Anyone has the potential for leadership, of course, but certain people have a greater set of skills and aptitude. Leadership starts with someone who wants to make a difference… . When people are truly motivated toward a goal or a vision, they will do it, even if they have to change themselves. In many ways, leadership starts with what’s important to you,” writes Professor Ancona of the Leadership Center at MIT.

Another course that has become part of the leadership program is improvisation. Daena Giardella, an executive coach and professional actor, writes about that aspect of the program.

“What we believe we are, or are not, limits how effective we can be as leaders. Improvisation forces you to break out of your habitual roles. You have to be ready to respond with dexterity to the moment… . You have to dare to make an impact in the scene without worrying about looking stupid or seeming silly. Improvisers learn how to manage the ‘inner critic’ voices that chatter in everyone’s head as we go through life. The inner critic might be saying, ‘Stay small, don’t get too big for your britches’ or ‘Give up, you can’t do this.’ Great improvisers and great leaders learn to play many roles and be adaptable scene to scene. In improvisation the goal is to make the other person look good and to bring out the best in the other person. An improvisation is destroyed if it’s all about me, me, me… and the same is true about leadership. Master leaders and master influencers know how to bring out the best in their teammates.”

Your challenge this week is to identify where you play the role of leader in your life and consider whether you need to improve your ability. Perhaps you’re excellent at creating a vision and translating that for others into realizable goals and objectives, but your relationship skills could use some work. Maybe you find that common sense comes quite easily to you and that you have a reputation for being street smart and pragmatic when making decisions. However, the practical aspect of your common sense may stand in the way of your ability to be innovative. What can you do to be more inventive in your approach?

More and more organizations are realizing that leadership is not just the domain of people at the top but of people at all levels. Our ability to lead has everything to do with how committed we are to our vision and to the people around us who will help us make it a reality. Don’t be afraid to examine how you lead others and what you’re prepared to do to achieve your goals. Leadership doesn’t just come naturally. It requires real work, and we all can stretch our ability to become better at it.

Have a great week!