Leaders Who Learn on the Job

For as long as I can remember during my career, and more recently while working on my book, I’ve read differing opinions about whether exceptional leaders are born to lead or learn to lead. While we all have observed or studied someone who appears to mysteriously channel all the right leadership behaviors, we’re surrounded by a robust professional development industry that shows how much we believe that leaders have something to learn on the job.

In fact, according to the 2017 Industry Training Report, expenditures on developing human capital increased last year by 32 percent for a total of $90.6 billion. Personally, I believe people are learning how to be better leaders on the job every day. Do some have an easier time adapting than others? Sure, but it’s no different than a pitcher who works hard at developing his curve ball versus a player to whom that pitch comes naturally.

Whether you’re a natural leader overnight or someone who works at it over the long haul, anyone who’s motivated to improve their leadership skills doesn’t have to look very far for good examples. For instance, Jim Barrett is a terrific illustration of a leader who has honed his craft of overseeing human potential. Barrett is a four-time CEO who shares his best advice for conscious leaders in a recent interview. I’d like to highlight a few lessons he gathered during his tenure at the top.

Learning how to be present

When Barrett was asked how his personal leadership style evolved, he said, “I developed a leadership style that focuses on bringing awareness and authenticity to work. It took time to understand that those things lead to greater success than racing around making sure everybody is doing their job.” I can relate to Barrett’s running around. There was a time when I got feedback while I was CEO at Prologis about how my team perceived me as hurried and how that discouraged them from approaching me. I was so grateful to learn this information because it helped me focus on being more present with others. As a result, my interactions were more meaningful which improved working relationships and outcomes.

Modeling service means your people serve right back

Barrett was also asked about common mistakes he noticed in other leaders and teachable mistakes he made himself. Barrett acknowledged that, “If you’re a people-driven organization — if you put your people first, create an exciting vision, and lead from a place of service — your employees will take great care of your customers and build amazing products.” My experience has been the same, especially when I’ve encouraged our people to connect with a purpose that resonated with them in their communities. By serving your employees, they’re inclined to serve others around them in and out of the workplace.

Recognizing fear before it takes hold of your decision-making

As for mistakes in his past, Barrett claims that most were made out of fear. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he often became critical or controlling because he was scared. Today, he recognizes fear for what it is and manages it in other ways besides imposing it on his employees. I have processed leadership fears of my own in the past, and the best way I’ve discovered how to disarm its effects are with honesty. When I’ve honestly shared my anxiety in the past with trusted peers or members of my team, it released the stronghold fears often have when they’re kept secret.

Rather than get caught up in the debate about whether a leader naturally captivates followers or learns how to do so over time, focus on the attributes we’ve explored here or qualities you’ve observed in leaders you admire. Make a list of those behaviors and take stock of your personal strengths so you can understand the qualities that are important to you. Before long, the debate of a born or bred leader won’t matter anymore. The only thing that will matter is how much you’ve learned.    

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