It is encouraging to come across people who are enthused about the subject of leadership and are seeking to improve their capabilities as a leader. With overwhelming schedules, many don't want to over-commit so they will proclaim their intention with something safe like, "I just want to be a better leader tomorrow than I am today." They might even go so far as to acknowledge the skills or behaviors they are committed to working on. Sounds promising, doesn't it?
Yet, we all know how much harder it is to develop ourselves than it is to merely utter a profound statement of intention. As one who is devoted to helping others make progress as leaders, I like to follow up such clichéd pronouncements with my favorite question: "Tell me one thing you have done today that has made you better as a leader than you were yesterday." As you might expect, the most common response is a blank stare.
It takes more than reciting an aspirational goals to get better. While it's easy to talk about development and the need for small, even daily, improvements, it's just not so easy to follow through. Nietzsche once wrote, "The most common sort of lie is the one uttered to oneself." Have you ever tried to trick yourself and others into thinking that you are taking steps to grow, when you know deep down all you are really doing is talking about it? My hand is raised.
I like to suggest to others a simple and memorable little model: Plan, Practice, Polish and Perform. (Ah yes, another clever series of words that all begin with the same letter!) Use whatever words you like, but here are a few key things to remember:
Getting better at anything takes practice. It is through practice that you test, tinker, make mistakes, learn and, ultimately, polish your skills. This ongoing practicing and polishing equips you to perform at your best when called upon to do so.
Don't forget, however, that practice seldom occurs unless you plan it. You likely have too many things on your plate today, so you must make a commitment to set aside specific time — and honor that commitment — if you expect to follow through. From taking music lessons or playing sports as a kid, you know that if the practice times had not been set up in advance, something else would have squeezed them out. Unless you plan, you will find your daily life feels like an endless series of interruptions, all of which are high priority. And we wonder why so many of us feel overwhelmed!
So, if you want to be better tomorrow than today start working on it right now. Plan how you can continually make progress. Then follow through on what you can do to turn boring meetings into productive planning sessions, listen more carefully to the "hard to express" needs of individuals, constantly clarify your messages so they are better understood, and improve in the many other areas in which followers and colleagues are counting on your leadership.
That trusted friend DWYSYWD (do what you say you will do) will serve you well. Don't let well-intentioned words be a substitute for the real work that needs to be done.
Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Certified Master, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.