Criticising leaders is practically a national sport in Australia, which makes being in a leadership position very difficult, says Liz Skelton, co-author of The Australian Leadership Paradox and principal consultant at Social Leadership Australia.
But you can beat the tall poppy syndrome.
Here are a few of Skelton’s tips to start thinking differently about leadership and work with confidence in 2014:
1. See leadership as an activity, not a position
Stop thinking about whether or not you are a good leader. The secret is to realise that leadership is not a position, it is something that people do, together.
If we see leadership as a collective activity, not the job of a single person, we can start to understand our challenges as something to share, rather than the ‘fault’ or responsibility of ‘the leader’. It allows leaders to be human and imperfect and it gives us the power to learn and change.
“Don’t get fixated on the ‘six traits of a good leader’ or the personal characteristics that we do or don’t have. Then you can build our leadership muscle and learn how to lead in a way that is useful,” Skelton says.
2. Don’t be afraid to step up
Australians have a strong anti-authority streak and a culture of mateship, says Skelton. They support the underdog and rally behind them, but as soon as the underdog becomes the top dog, they become wary. This stigma hinders good leadership.
“Australian leaders often make the mistake of trying to seem to be like everyone else – to be ‘ordinary’. The impact of this in leadership is we don’t strive to be exceptional and we settle for the ‘mediocrity of the middle’ – if we don’t take the risk to step up then we won’t be shot down,” says Skelton.
People who can recognise, own, and use their power and authority and who are prepared to take risks, experiment, and even fail, are actually better leaders.
3. Get clear on your purpose
Working with a purpose is the foundation of good leadership. Creating and sharing a clear understanding of ‘why’ you do what you do, and having a clear focus on the reason your organisation exists helps motivate and inspire people.
“Perhaps the most provocative question we can ask is, ‘Why?’: ‘Why are you in your role?’, ‘Why is your organisation here?’,” says Skelton.
Step back and think about the broader purpose of your work. Leaders may be able to help others transform dreams to reality, but to be a good leader you first need to know what’s driving you.
4. Don’t be afraid of conflict
Leadership is about finding new solutions to problems with complex, often unknown causes, so conflict is actually an essential part of the process. This means being able to work with others—people who may be different from us or have challenging ideas.
When we see the potential value in conflict, then we can start to see disruption as progress, rather than a hindrance. This is where true innovation can emerge.
5. Don’t be too predictable … and be prepared to fail
Doing the same thing and getting the same reactions? It’s time to mix it up. Skelton says it is important for leaders not to become too predictable in their approach. They should be prepared to take risks and experiment. And that means being prepared to fail.
“Experiment with how you engage and respond,” Skelton says, “And remember, leadership means being able to say you don’t know the answers.”
6. Learn to lead adaptively
In 2014, leaders will navigate economic changes, fast changes in technology and shifting workforce and consumer expectations. To thrive through change we need to adapt – as individuals and organisationally. This means knowing what to keep and what to let go of. Leaders need to recognise when it’s time to change something fundamental in our behaviours, values or norms.
“Bring to mind an issue at work that keeps resurfacing. You’ve thrown money, time and resources at solving it, but nothing seems to work. There is no precedent and no rules to follow. Chances are this is an adaptive challenge,” says Skelton.
Discover how you can become a better leader at one of Social Leadership Australia’s two Adaptive Leadership programs running 18-21 March in Brisbane and 8-11 April in Sydney. Find out more and register here.
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