How Can You Tell If You Have What It Takes To Be A Leader?

Copyright 2006 The National Learning Institute

Finding out “How am I doing?” has always been a thorny issue for managers, particularly when the issue is about “How good a leader am I?”. It’s relatively easy to get feedback on results (e.g. sales, budgets etc.) but it becomes more difficult to get feedback on how we lead and manage others. Often the only feedback we get is when our boss tells us “something has gone wrong”. Or, when we do get feedback from colleagues it’s often very general and likely to be more positive. Yet, research (first carried out as long ago as 1920!) clearly shows that:

• managers who seek and get regular feedback from others are among the better performing managers.

In the last decade, research has confirmed these earlier studies and additionally found that:

• managers who are accurately aware of their strengths and weaknesses are better leaders.

How can we get some realistic feedback on our performance as managers, and more specifically our ability as leaders? The simplest way is to ask others. Some of us do that from time to time in an informal way, but the accuracy and extent of the feedback depends on many variables, not the least of which is people’s ability to receive and give honest feedback.

Some years ago, the “360 degree feedback” process was designed to overcome many of these inadequacies. It’s called “360′ because feedback is sought in a structured way from:

• Our manager

• Our peers

• The people that report to us

We also complete a “self” rating for comparison with the feedback of others. In other words, a 360 degree view of our performance.

The process involves each person (refered to as “raters”) completing a questionnaire that asks them how often do they see us exhibiting a number of common leadership behaviours on scales such as “always”, “often”, “occasionally”, “seldom” or “never”?. The more progressive 360 tools also ask each rater to add whether they would like to see us display “more” of each behaviour, the “same” amount, or “less” of each of the leadership behaviours. In this way we can gain some meaningful and useful feedback.

That all sounds well and good, but do all 360’s answer the question about “my performance as a leader”? My experience is often not. Most focus on the inputs of leadership such as character, personality, values, motives, skills or behaviours. As such, they are generally measuring what we do as “managers” not “leaders”.

What’s the difference?

Almost 100 years ago, Mary Parker Follett described a manager as “one who gets things done through people”. This description is still used by management educators and scholars today, but I believe should be changed to: “one who gets the things done that are described by the organisation in the manager’s role or position description, through the people they have been assigned”. My contention is that, if you are a manager, then: – You become a manager when you sign on for the job – You only become a leader when your people say so

So, you get given the title of “manager” from the organisation and people will do things for you (either well or not so well depending on how well you manage them) because of WHAT you are not WHO you are. Only your people can give you the title of “leader”. In other words, the organisation gives you your “corporate” manager’s hat that lets everyone in the organisation know that you are officially a manager. Then, your people, when they believe in you, give you your leadership badge, your badge of honour! And that’s what a good leadership 360 needs to measure – under what conditions will people believe in me and follow me?

What are these conditions that we need to create to be seen by others as leaders rather than merely managers?

My research indicates that leaders become leaders because they do at least four things for us:

1. They help us understand and make sense of our environment. For example, when things aren’t working out or are unclear for us, they are able to explain what is happening in practical terms that we can understand.

2. They help give us a sense of direction. They are able to paint a picture of a brighter future and help us believe that we can achieve the things we want to achieve.

3. They give us a belief in the values that are important to us. In doing so, they make us feel part of a team of people that share these values and have the same aims.

4. They are able to make us feel powerful by allowing us the freedom to make decisions about our life, work and the future.

If you are contemplating getting some feedback on your leadership ability, choose a 360 profile that measures what you are looking for – leadership (one example can be found at http://www.hrworkbench.com/eng/p-leadership-benchmark.html )

In the meantime, here’s a quick test to gain some indication on your current status as a leader. Once you have been in your current role for say, 9 to 12 months, ask yourself “Would my people do the things I now ask them to do even if I were not their manager?” If you can truthfully answer “Yes”, then you are well on the path to becoming a leader. We suspect, that many of you will probably answer this with a “Maybe” – try not to be concerned at this, as the road to leadership is a long one, but a truly rewarding one. If you are concerned that it seems to be taking you forever to develop as a leader, keep in mind the experience of one of the greatest leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison waiting to show how he could lead his country!

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