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HR Connection: Leadership begins with personal development

A. Gidget Hopf

A. Gidget Hopf

Hundreds of books on leadership are published every year and C-suite bookcases display many of them. However, even if the senior executives in those offices read the books, there often isn’t much evidence that they have learned anything. Learning occurs when behavior changes, otherwise you’ve only digested information.

I have had the opportunity to teach hundreds of mid- to senior-level leaders over the past 10 years. I have observed that there is a dearth of understanding regarding the difference between leadership and management. Invariably people are promoted because they are good at managing or at some technical skill. What most fail to realize is that the skills required for managing and the skills required for leading are very different.

I typically begin my workshops with the question, “Think about an exceptional leader in your life, someone who truly made a difference; what were the characteristics or behaviors that made this person exceptional?”

Here is a list of the characteristics that are consistently offered:

• Visionary

• Trustworthy

• Great communicator

• High level of integrity

• Motivating

• Fair

• Honest

• Ethical role model

• Confident

• Humble

In all the years I have been asking this question, never have I heard:

• Good strategic planner

• Problem solver

• Financial whiz

• Delegator

• Organized

• Manages time well

And so you get the idea. The first list characterizes leadership behaviors while the second list characterizes management behaviors. While the skills listed in the second list are important, they are not what will take an organization from good to great.

So those C-suite executives may be reading a lot of books; however, if they are not developing the skills in the first list and truly working on their personal development, the likelihood is that their organization will not achieve breakthrough strategies and perhaps more perilously, overcome serious threats or barriers to success.

Personal development

I came to understand the importance of personal development about 15 years ago when I began working with an executive coach and had my first 360 assessment with feedback from peers, direct reports, and in my case key board members. I describe the process of hearing the results of the 360, as the surprising effect one has when looking into a make-up mirror and discovering that an apparently minor blemish is much larger than assumed. I may have been aware at a subconscious level of my shortcomings, however, when mirrored back to me by others, everything felt magnified like the reflection in the mirror. It gave me a jolt.

While inclined to dismiss the feedback as invalid, my coach helped me understand that other’s perceptions are their reality and they must be considered. My first reaction was to look for another job, however my coach helped me realize that working on my personal development would pay dividends. Little did I realize at that moment that my life was about to be forever altered, and so my leadership journey began.

Learning model

Coaching is a leadership development modality which holds a fundamental premise that trusts the individuals being coached to find the answers for and within themselves. The coach’s job is to probe and provoke, challenging the “coachee.” Challenges include questioning any long-held assumptions and perspectives to seek alternatives that lead to new directions.

When a leader is committed to personal development, she will move through four phases described as:

Unconsciously incompetent

Consciously incompetent

Consciously competent

Unconsciously competent

Unconsciously incompetent

As I learned from my 360, I was exhibiting behaviors that were not conducive to building trust and thus, a team. I was unaware (unconsciously incompetent) of how my behaviors were affecting those around me. It was only through the honest feedback I received that my harmful behaviors, “warts and all,” were revealed. The first step in the journey to developing one’s leadership is self-awareness which leads to the next phase, being consciously incompetent.

Consciously incompetent

Seeking feedback takes courage and can be a painful process. However, without it, most leaders will continue in a state of naive self-delusion that they are fine and so is everyone around them. Bringing other’s perceptions into the lens of the leader and accepting that there are behaviors that need to be changed is a crucial part of the learning process. This new level of self-awareness (being conscious of negative behaviors) is essential for a leader to develop. This leads to the hard work of becoming consciously competent.

Consciously competent

While working with a coach is an extremely useful and effective learning modality in helping a developing leader work on leadership skills, it is not the only way. Marshall Goldsmith, a world-renowned coach and author, asserts that it is important for the leaders committed to this work to enlist the support and complicity of those around them. Being honest with others about the desire to change demonstrates humility and fosters a commitment in others to become an ally.

As others see the leader’s commitment being actualized in meaningful behavior changes, trust in the leader will build.

Becoming consciously competent is hard work. Anytime we try to overcome negative proclivities like interrupting others, not listening well, being overly emotional, demonstrating impatience, being short-sighted, or whatever is your “Achilles’ heel,” we can expect to fall back into old habits.

Engaging in a practice of reflecting in action, a sort of hyper-awareness of one’s behavior in the moment, can bring one back from the brink and provide an opportunity to self-correct before exhibiting the undesired behavior. I often describe it as “watching myself lead from the balcony.” I also solicit regular feedback, seeking honest assessments from others about their interactions with me.

Becoming consciously competent can be a lifelong journey. All of us are, after all, a work in progress. However, over time, these new behaviors come more naturally, or as the next learning phase describes, unconsciously.

Unconsciously competent

The work of personal development is a never-ending process. We will always have behaviors that we can improve on. The goal, of course, is not to have to think so hard about it, but rather have these behaviors occur comfortably and naturally — to be who we are and not how we act. Being unconsciously competent represents the notion of becoming, of embodying the person we envision ourselves to be.

While we may never achieve perfection, we will become better leaders and demonstrate the characteristics of an exceptional leader, as suggested in the earlier list.

Reading is an effective way to understand current views and ideas about leadership. “Strategic Leadership,” “Toxic Leadership” and “Bad Bosses” are some of the recent titles of these books. There are also a plethora of scholarly journals dedicated to the topic of leadership with many academics conducting great research in the field.

However, my challenge to the most avid reader is to take something from a book or article that speaks to you and make a commitment to incorporate the information into behavior change. Seek out a coach or engage a trusted colleague and let him or her know what you are working on so that he or she can hold you accountable for this behavior change.

The mantra that I share with my workshop participants and students is, “Nothing changes until the leader changes; and when the leader changes, everything changes.” Let change begin with you, and your leadership strength will follow.

A. Gidget Hopf, Ed.D, is the president and CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes — ABVI and board chair of Goodwill Industries International. This article is brought to you by the Rochester Affiliate of the National HR Association, a local professional HR organization focused on advancing the career development, planning and leadership of HR professionals. Visit www.humanresources.org for more information.

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