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ACHIEVING SCALE

7 Reasons You Can't Learn Leadership on Your Own

Very few entrepreneurs, board members, or investors give much thought to leadership development. That's a huge mistake.
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Very few founders, startup CEOs, board members, investors, and others supporting the entrepreneurial community actively pursue and advocate disciplined, professional leadership development. This is an enormous missed opportunity.

Entrepreneurs, especially founders and startup CEOs, need not wait to be encouraged to do this work. They should not consider their own development as a nice-to-have, an indulgence, or an unnecessary expense. They certainly should not delay until their jobs are threatened by their poor performance. 

Here are seven reasons (among many) that every founder and entrepreneurial CEO should actively develop their leadership, and a question about each.

1.     Leadership development works

Studies consistently demonstrate that organizations with a developmental mindset and holistic leadership programs out-perform organizations that do not. (See the Center for Creative Leadership for some excellent research.)

In which category would you like your company to be?

2.     Leadership is learned and can be taught

The question is not whether leaders are born or made. Rather, we should ask what leaders have made of their attributes (inborn and otherwise), and which experiences they’ve had or missed. Leadership is learned because leaders are not born with special powers. They are made over time through challenges, personal courage, setbacks, self-reflection, and an ability to grow. 

Many leadership lessons require us to unlearn old habits, default reactions, and assumptions about human nature in order to adopt new and different choices and behaviors.

This is not to say that anyone can lead; it is to say that true leaders learn over time. Entrepreneurs need to start learning about leadership, and never stop. 

What are you doing right now to learn about your leadership?

3.     Observing leadership is not the same as developing leadership

A certain amount of learning takes place through observation, and a number of leadership elements can be demonstrated by good role models.  However, there is a massive gap between seeing and doing. Too few people and organizations address this with deliberate, consistent, and constant leadership development.

One particularly stubborn myth is that leadership is something one naturally gains over time, like graying hair.  One survey of 17,000 global leaders found that the average age for their first leadership training was 42, “about 10 years after they began supervising people,” and almost 20 years after they started experiencing leadership in organizations. That’s a long time to observe leaders who are figuring it out on their own, while picking up their bad habits. A better approach is to take charge of the proper way to learn about leadership. 

What is more formal and serious than developing yourself, and what are you doing about it?

4.    Many board members and investors are not good leaders

In truth, many boards don’t know enough about leadership.  After all, boards are comprised of the same representative 17,000 people cited above.  Some are pure investors. Many have experience as executives, and yet are not adept at helping someone else with leadership. Many see themselves as tremendously effective leaders, but they are actually tremendous egotists.  (When you find Board members who contradict these categories, hold onto them with both hands.)

Board members and investors have specific agendas. Helping you grow as a leader is rarely one of them, especially if it interferes with their primary objectives.  Also, learning requires vulnerability, which is not the relationship you want to have with your board.  So, solicit their opinions, listen to their experiences – and then talk about the personal implications with your coach. 

How do you demonstrate your leadership growth to your board without involving them in the direct process?

5.     Leadership is about power

Many entrepreneurial CEOs are surprised by, and uncomfortable with, the intense power dynamics of leadership. They often focus on the personal responsibilities of leadership (“I am now responsible for the livelihood of all my employees”) without recognizing that they must demonstrate their fitness to lead by exercising, balancing, and containing the power of their role. This means making difficult decisions and tradeoffs that may be unpopular and contrary to the ethos of the earliest days of the organization. In a high-growth company, the shift from a happy band of co-founders to an organization of dozens of people can happen in a flash. 

How are you preparing so that the weight of your power does not break you?

6.     You can’t always see the ice cracking beneath your feet

Boards play power games, too, and take power from those who are weaker. You are not immune to these attacks.  Lori Mazan, a Leadership Advisor at Leading From Center, points out that many boards and investors of early-stage companies seem to think that leadership “just happens.”  When they don’t see the CEO embodying their unrealistic version of leadership, they read it as an absence of leadership and a signal to replace the entrepreneur CEO.  This drama often plays out unbeknownst to the CEO -- until it is too late. 

What are you doing to increase your awareness of how you are perceived, and how will you make adjustments?

7.     The future is not the past

Many entrepreneurs approach the founding and leading of a company with the same mindset they engaged before they were entrepreneurs.  Wanting to hold onto the past is an understandable reaction to change, but not terribly useful for the forward-looking challenges of leadership. 

A very hard element of personal growth is the awareness, discipline, and courage to set down the skills, activities, and identity of the past, in order to pick up new things for the future.  You can’t carry both.  You must listen for what the past is telling you to stop, and learn what the future requires you to start.

Nothing complicated is learned casually, and leadership is nothing if not complicated.  Every leader needs help learning about their leadership. 

From where do you get help?

Last updated: Mar 25, 2013

BRIAN EVJE | Columnist | Management Consultant, Slalom Consulting

Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth. This involves a process consultation approach to leadership (coaching and development), change (organization and culture), and organizational health (strategy, design, effectiveness, and fitness.) Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women's full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master's program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris/Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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