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How to Develop Leadership Skills

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: THe Power to Change Anything.

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.


InfluencerQ Dear Crucial Skills,

After working as chair of a small committee in my department for more than a year, my boss told me I must step down because the committee finds my leadership “chaotic.” I am concerned that this is indicative of my inability to lead. I chaired the committee years back and was relieved of command without a full explanation, and I have served on several committees without being asked to chair. My question is two-fold. First, can leadership be learned or is it a trait people are born with? Second, what should I do to regain the trust of my department—I’d like to be a leader.

Lacking Leadership Skills

A  Dear Lacking,

Good for you for turning this unfortunate situation into an opportunity for personal development. Too many people in your shoes become defensive, angry, or depressed.

Is leadership a trait? No! You don’t have to change your genes or revisit your early upbringing. Rather, leadership is a bundle of skills, and now is the perfect time for you to master them.

Begin with a skill scan. Consider the different skills that are required to lead committees, and determine where to begin. You already have some clues. Your boss says the committee finds your leadership “chaotic.” Learn more about what that means. Find someone who will share tough truths with you, and get concrete examples of when your behavior caused others to draw that conclusion.

Chances are you need to build your skills in one or two of the competencies involved in leading a committee. Here are the areas I’d consider:

Project Management Skills: Committees are formed to accomplish objectives. The committee leader is expected to manage the overall process of achieving these objectives. Up front, you work with the committee’s stakeholders to define the project. Then, during the project, you work with team members to keep the project on time, on spec, and on budget. Maybe “chaotic” means you aren’t doing enough between meetings to keep the project on course.

Meeting Management Skills: The committee leader usually leads the committee’s meetings. Meeting leaders make sure the right people are at the meeting, they come prepared, and they make sure the meeting starts and ends on time, the agenda is clear, and decisions and next steps are documented. Maybe “chaotic” means people find the meetings confusing or unhelpful.

Dialogue Skills: The committee leader is expected to foster open dialogue and to help resolve disagreements. Do your committees get bogged down in disputes? Do you see silence and violence instead of honest and frank discussion? Maybe “chaotic” means people see dithering, debate, and denial where they want dialogue.

Political Skills: The committee leader is expected to maintain strong communication links to the customers and stakeholders who are sponsoring the committee. The leader keeps everyone updated on progress and changing needs. Maybe “chaotic” means people feel blindsided by changes that come from outside the committee.

Build the skills, using deliberate practice: Listen to others’ specific feedback. Select the area where you are weakest, and then build your skills. Read books and articles, or take a workshop. Even better, find a colleague who is a good leader and ask for coaching.

Then begin your deliberate practice. Volunteer for an assignment that requires you to use your new skills, but don’t practice at work. Find a community or volunteer assignment where you can build your skills.

A warning: Maybe your boss isn’t being completely direct with you. Maybe his or her real desire is to have you spend less time working on committees and more time working on another assignment. Ask yourself whether leading a committee is the best way for you to contribute. If it isn’t, then consider focusing on an area that makes you more valuable.

Finally, if a leadership opportunity presents itself in the near future, don’t pursue it. New skills require an investment of time. So does regaining trust. Don’t rush back into a committee chair position until you and your organization are ready.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

10 thoughts on “How to Develop Leadership Skills”

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  2. Julie

    Dear Lacking, I think you already possess a great leadership skill. You care. The ability to step up and ask for help with this shows that you are willing to make change which is another leadership must have. Kudos to you and best wishes! This is one of favorite Crucial Skills articles to date. Thank you for putting yourself out there!

  3. Amanda

    As for leadership, take this into consideration before being too hard on yourself or spending too much time searching for what you are doing “wrong”. In order to be a leader, you must be elected. Anything otherwise represents a dictatorship, and those following you, your “subjects”. I suggest you read the book: Why Your Boss Is Programmed To Be A Dictator by Chetan Dhruve. You will find it is not just lack of skills, but the engrained environment or system itself that sets you up to fail at leadership. You will be a great leader, if only because you are asking questions about leadership. In the mean time, be gentle and patient with yourself and consider your traits along with the context of your environment’s structure.

  4. Jennifer

    This is a very helpful article but it leaves one question, when would lacking leadership skills know when his/her organization was ready?

  5. Amanda

    Jennifer, that is a great question… That is just what the book I mention above addresses: The organization, and the system in which it operates. Take a look at the book, and I think you’ll find the answer

  6. Dave

    Dear LLS,

    You raise a good question, and the answer was right on. However, it missed what may be the most crucial point: a clear and complete understanding of what was meant by “chaotic.” You can study leadership and build skills, but unless you know specifically the results that are hurting you – and what other factors contribute to those results – you’re likely to get the same results over and over again. It’s quite possible – I would say likely – that other factors contribute to your leadership problems. Look closely at the dynamics behind what “chaotic” means (if you’re ever able to get deeper into it) and you may find many things outside your control. The question then becomes how to work with those issues, and that could be a good question for middle and upper management – and a test of their own leadership, which they might not appreciate.

    Also, it seems to me Amanda’s first comment is incorrect. To be a leader, one must be accepted, not elected. The path to the position is far less important than what you do with it once you get there. I note that some elected “leaders” do not lead, and some appointed “leaders” are excellent (and of course vice versa). Her last point, though, is excellent – to evaluate your skills in the context of your organization’s culture. It could be that there’s nothing wrong with your skills; you might just be in the wrong place.

    Best of luck,
    Dave (former public sector organizational consultant)

  7. Rob

    It should really not be up to the committee to decide on whether you make a good leader. It should be up to your followers to decide. You could try polling your ‘followers’ and see what they say – if you have strong support, you can always try putting this information in front of the committee.

    I’ve read the book that Amanda references, and absolutely agree with the book’s fundamental premise: that context is an overwhelmingly crucial factor in human behavior. Context determines the nature of conversations. If you’re elected, you’re going to have one type of conversation with your ‘followers’. If you’re not elected but have power over somebody, you’re going to have another type of conversation.

    It’s a systemic issue, rather than one of individuals. I highly recommend the book as it uses Systems Thinking to get to the core causes workplace behaviors. A truly enlightening read.

  8. Amanda

    The difference between a boss (the committee) and an elected leader: In a free system, citizens can impeach or vote out the elected leader without fear. The fate of the leader is in the citizens’ hands. In most workplaces today, the typical system grants bosses absolute power: We cannot vote out or impeach our boss (leader), and fate of the boss is not in the hands of the employees (followers). Dissent is not well tolerated, and fear is a prevalent emotion with a culture of secrecy. That is why the term “chaotic” is confusing: You aren’t being told what is really going on. It is correct that management will not appreciate questioning because fear is a prevalent emotion, and dissent is not tolerated. A good question would be, “Why do they behave the way they do?” This question will not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the committee or any one person is to blame, either.
    Attempting to completely, deeply understand “chaotic” or dynamics of it or any other label given to you by your boss/committee, in this case, is futile. It does not contribute to your leadership development or self growth, and will probably have little influence on their opinions or the situation -simply because of the context and system that is in place.
    I differ that my first comment is incorrect. A leader is a person who is elected by the people s/he is leading. Being elected is a form of acceptance and the two are not mutually exclusive in a free system.

  9. Rob

    Dave, you say that, “The path to the position is far less important than what you do with it once you get there.”

    Let’s say a “suitable” committee, the composition of which you have no say in, simply appoints the President of the United States, without due electoral process (of course, you also lose your right to vote forever). Would that be ok?

    In any case, the point the book makes is that when people have the right to vote, freedom results. When people do not have voting rights, dictatorships result, along with fear. Freedom is more important than the individual leaders, who come and go by virtue of being voted in or out.

  10. Chad Andrews

    Dear Dave, I believe that leadership is clearly a learable skill. The first question is : do you have the passion for it? In my limited study of the topic it’s hard to define what gives a person this passion. Perhaps it’s like anything, you just discover that you like it. If you are put in a leadership position, you can ask “your followers” for feedback. How am I doing? Please give me feedback on how I can better help you do your job, lead you etc. I saw a good article on line about leadership styles: authoritarian- high orietation to task, low on relation ship “do what I tell you” Next is collaborative: high on task accomplishment/ and high on relationship. This seems optimal. Next is “country club” high on relationship but low on task accomplishment. The leader is too concerned about relationships to really lead. And finally low task/ low relationship.(not sure what to call it.) Anyway, good luck. I agree with the comment that you need a clear definition of what chaotic means. Perhaps for example you need to sharpen your meeting leading skills or focus on some other specific improvable behavior. To summarize, if you have the passion and can make it through the inevitable emotional set backs involved with leading: you can do it!

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