A Big Difference

I recently heard a comment from a young woman who just completed a couple of days of leadership development work. When asked what she would take away from it she said something like this. She said she could no longer attempt to remain mostly invisible or under the radar, if she was going to be an effective leaders. She would have to step out into the light and be willing to be more visible and intentional in her actions.

There is a lot of truth in that statement. One of the lessons I constantly try to share with aspiring leaders is that learning about leadership – and learning to lead more effectively are two different things. The first is usually quite safe and almost completely passive. The latter requires putting yourself out there, which requires action, and dealing with some heart-thumping moments at times.

The woman above could have said that she learned a bunch about what leadership is and why it is important. And that would have likely made her session very rewarding and worthwhile for her. The downside is her wonderful experience may have ended up not having one trace of impact on those around her. Instead, she stated that she knew she had to change how she led, and had to take action on making some of those changes. Now, those around her at least have a chance that what she learned will bear fruit for them. Good for her.

Years ago, Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton wrote a book called, The Knowing Doing Gap. In it they cited several factors which contribute to people not acting upon what they know should be done. One of those factors was how talk substitutes for action. Frankly, I am perplexed by how prevalent that viewpoint still seems to be these days.  Some “wanna-be” leaders have made a career out of talk. They live in meetings, where they get so caught up in talking about plans and strategies, that they don’t have time to actually take action on anything. Their jam-packed schedules can also make one think they must be accomplishing a great deal as a leader. I’ll bet you know someone like this.

Many of you know that one of the leadership practices from The Leadership Challenge is called Challenge the Process. This is the practice where leaders and their teams are experimenting, taking risks, prototyping – actively searching for innovative ways to improve. The practice is Challenge the Process, not Talk About How to Challenge the Process. There is a big difference.

Keep in mind this final point. To be the best leader you can be, you have to do your homework, constantly gaining new knowledge and a better understanding of the issues with which you are dealing. But then you ultimately have to put everything you know into action. You must be willing to learn by doing, not just learn by studying. Given enough time, I could read up on everything there is to know about removing a gall bladder. That said, you would not want me standing over you in the operating room with a scalpel in my hand – would you?

Over my decades of work, I have heard a number of people cited as great leaders, from Moms and Dads to  larger than life people, such as Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa. Here is one observation I would offer you. When identifying admired leaders, people always highlight what the leader did, not what the leader knew. So, always keep learning because we know the best leaders are lifelong learners. And always keep experimenting, testing, and applying in a variety of fashions what you are learning. That is how you will become the leader others need you to be.

Enjoy the day.

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