Developing the next generation of leaders (Proceedings)


What makes a leader? Is leadership an inherited quality, or can it be created through education, experience, and example? There's no doubt that a few select individuals seem to be naturally endowed with those qualities necessary to become a great leader. However, for the rest of us, is there any hope of becoming an effective leader?

What makes a leader? Is leadership an inherited quality, or can it be created through education, experience, and example? There's no doubt that a few select individuals seem to be naturally endowed with those qualities necessary to become a great leader. However, for the rest of us, is there any hope of becoming an effective leader?

Despite their manifold personality types, all leaders share common characteristics. Some of these common qualities are inherited, while others are learned. According to Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas' research documented in the Harvard Business Review article "Crucibles of Leadership", one inherent quality of a good leader is the ability to cope with, then rise above difficult circumstances. That is, a leader can find meaning beyond immediate obstacles and focus on how to improve himself and his situation for the future. Benchmarks 2006 – A Study of Well-Managed PracticesSM indicates another inherent quality that distinguishes a leader from other individuals is a sense of purpose achieved through a clear vision, passion demonstrated through a positive work ethic, and a focus on how individual and group contributions can change the future. A third inherent quality of leaders is the ability to develop group dynamics. Group development, however, requires the leader to first create a climate of trust and collaboration through genuine care and consistent behavior. Individuals are more willing to make the workplace successful, profitable, and enjoyable when their specific strengths and interests are recognized and used.

The learned attributes common to leaders can be acquired either through formal education or through observing and imitating the example and behavior of another leader. A leader must be able to think quickly and circumspectly. To develop this skill, organization and the ability to focus, as well as accuracy and clarity in work are vital. A leader must also possess some level of influence on those around her, taking into account the affects she has on clients and staff, as well as the reputation and rapport she has within the profession. A leader must also never stop striving. This requires continuous learning and improvement of skills and knowledge, initiating investigation and research both independently and within a group, and taking pride in personal accomplishments and co-workers' accomplishments.

A leader can teach and inspire individuals to become leaders themselves by improving upon and demonstrating the learned attributes discussed earlier, and by implementing the following habits in everyday life. Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams, in their Harvard Business Review article "Is Silence Killing Your Company?" suggest encouragement as a driving force in the shaping of leaders. A leader in the habit of encouraging allows staff members to give the situation at hand their genuine consideration, and lets them know that being wrong is fine as long as they learn from their mistakes. Too often, when a boss solicits ideas from subordinates, fear of failure prevents those team members from suggesting solutions "outside of the box". Encourage staff members, and they'll be more confident to take on additional responsibility.

Clear communication is a difficult, but vital habit for leaders to develop. Kathryn Jeffers, in her educational session "Improving Performance Through Candor and Coaching," details the importance of effective communication. Perhaps the primary communication duty of a leader is to be able to calmly discuss conflict, and resolve it. A leader must be able to present disappointing or unpleasant news in such a way that the recipient can accept the information and move forward while productively implementing the change or behavior required. A leader must understand the idea that everyone interprets information differently, and act accordingly – the duty falls to the communicator to make oneself understood. Without clear communication, a leader is rendered ineffective and will be unable to convey his or her thoughts and ideas.

A third habit necessary to the effectiveness of a leader is the ability to control his or her emotions. Without control, an individual is not a leader but either tyrannical or else easily persuaded to any course of action. A leader, according to the Kathryn Jeffers' research, must be able to take criticism professionally, not personally, and realize that unpleasant feedback has no bearing on one's worth as a person. Feedback is meant to show opportunities for an individual to improve professionally and personally, not to attack self-respect. Demonstrate control in your interaction with your staff members, and they'll follow your lead (and you'll cut down on office drama!).

To create a program to teach leadership in your practice, take these tips from the Benchmarks 2006 – A Study of Well-Managed PracticesSM . Identify staff members with the inherent qualities discussed earlier and the potential to develop learned leadership attributes. Offer the team members you've identified the option of taking on additional responsibility, then develop training protocols and a training program for the leadership track. Be sure to solicit input from the staff members involved regarding their opinions of the leadership training program, and any suggestions they may have for improvements. Finally, be sure you provide opportunities for these staff members to practice what they learn, so they are prepared when they move into their new leadership role.

The term "servant leader" floats around the business world, but few of us give any thought to what this phrase means for the leader of a business, department, or team. When you serve you put another's needs before your own, and when you lead you guide and direct others' actions so as to benefit the business, department, or team. Servant leadership, then, means guidance by putting the needs of the student before the needs and/or expectations of the teacher. The various traits and behaviors discussed earlier must be taught, but cannot be taught effectively if leaders fail to recognize what staff members need. Perhaps you and your head receptionist agree that the next step in her growth with the practice is for her to move into the role of practice manager. You create a leadership program for her, and immediately start training her in financial management. Does she have any background in finance? Does she have any interest in finance? If the answer to these questions is "no", take a step back. To lead, start by educating her in the basics of how practice finances are managed. To serve, focus initially on the skills she currently has, such as client and staff management, and develop those in preparation for the large role she is to fill. This way you're meeting both her needs and the needs of the practice as a whole, and you're developing a team member into an effective leader!

While certain traits necessary to the success of a leader are inherited, leadership can be taught, but only if the individual targeted for advancement wants the responsibility. An individual may have all the right inherent qualities, but without a desire to lead, all the experience and education in the world will not change his or her mind. Lead and serve team members interested in leadership by offering them the chance to develop their strengths and by guiding them through the process. You'll be well on your way to a more productive, self-directed, well-organized practice. Be sure to demonstrate your particular brand of leadership, so your apprentices can see you practice what you teach. They're taking their cue from you.

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