Leaders: You Need More Than Checklists

I have seen more and more advice published regarding leadership that depends on a formula. The author sets forth a list of behaviors as “absolute truths” or “undeniable secrets” that are the fundamental tools for great leadership. But even the best tools are only as good as the hands and minds that use them. In the absence of a capable mindset and temperament, they can do as much harm as good.

I recently completed a coaching engagement with “Clarisse,” who needed to develop stronger influence capacity, prepping for a move from a divisional president role to a corporate strategy leadership role. She had performed admirably in taking a small division to higher revenue and profitability. She had a reputation as a very hands-on, highly directive leader.

Now she was moving to a position requiring her to wield influence far more than authority. Training in communications and influence at a major B school program was a good start, but to get the benefit from it, Clarisse had to get comfortable not being in charge. She needed patience and a more systemic view and had to learn how to get along without the authority she had previously.

Sustainable growth and increased capacity require a combination of skills and personal development. All the information about delegation in the world will not help me be a better delegator if I do not change my relationship with my inner micro-manager. Similarly, if I am not naturally the inspirational leader I would like to be, a course in public speaking and an emotional intelligence profile will not likely help me make those changes until I have developed some inner capacity for using them.

External skill-building is a good start, but developing an internal leader’s mindset is the key to sustained behavior change. I term this mindset the “operating system” because, like a computer’s operating system, it functions in the background, processing inputs and generating outputs (behaviors) based on its programming.

Stephen Covey’s landmark “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” offers a great example of how this inner operating system works. Covey understood that the habits were expressions of an individual’s mindset. If you happen to be the highly competitive sort, then habit No. 4, “Think win-win,” might not come naturally to you. You can easily get training on win-win negotiating tools. But unless you’re able to tame your natural competitiveness, the learned tools will be awkward, ill-used or even ignored altogether.

Only when you are willing to address what is behind your desire (need?) to win will you be able to make full use of the training and migrate thinking win-win from a challenge that runs upstream of your default style to a new way of being.

Most of the suggestions in the more list-oriented leadership development books are worthwhile. But if you, your colleagues or your staff recognize a skill or change that would be a powerful boost in your leadership capacity, then by definition, it is probably not your strong suit. And if it is not your strong suit today, there is a part of your inner operating system that did not see it, did not want it, did not recognize it or simply did not value it.

Without changes to the operating system, trying to change leadership behavior with skills-based training is like trying to plant seeds in the desert. Making changes in our personal operating system is a more organic process and it takes time. That is why we have seen the rise of executive coaching, depth retreats and extended leadership development programs in the last decade.

Years ago, as part of a single-day leadership development workshop, one of the participants, a leader with decades of experience in a global organization, commented that “the more leadership development work I do, the more I realize that true leadership is about being a fully functional human being.” As leaders in search of improved function, we all strive to upgrade our inner operating system, whether we call it that or not. We want the training work that we engage in to take root and blossom, making us better leaders for our own sake and the sake of the organizations we lead.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 24, 2017.