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Leading Off
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Are perfect leaders born, rather than made? That’s what some research tells us. It can be disheartening to learn that only 10 percent of people have the natural talent to become great managers. But the more challenged 90 percent can cultivate many leadership competencies, mindsets, and skills if they invest in improving their capabilities. Lifelong learning and growth are prerequisites to survive in any executive job, and given today’s flatter hierarchies and increasing turnover, more professionals are likely to take on leadership roles at some point in their careers. This week, let’s explore some self-improvement techniques that may take you closer to the top.
Photo of Jennifer Pharr Davis, founder and owner of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company
Listen to your ‘inner voice’
Often inundated with the advice and demands of others, leaders may let their personal goals and motivations languish. But your own instincts may be the best guide during times of conflict or crisis. In this interview, Jennifer Pharr Davis, founder and owner of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, tells McKinsey the compelling story of how she overcame self-doubt, physical setbacks, and disparagement from others to set a record for the fastest time to hike the Appalachian Trail. “I faced a lot of criticism, so it was important to be in touch with what I felt and what my motivations were,” Davis says. “Everyone has that inner voice and inner drive, but it often gets muscled out. People need to carve out time to listen to that inner voice because it’s an important resource.” On the trail, Davis fashioned a unique program for herself to get through each day, including setting small goals, learning from failures, and playing to her strengths. Consider leadership a developmental journey, not a static role, and create practices for yourself to stay fresh and vital along the way.
That’s the extra annual cost in dollars for managing just one nasty leader who indulges in personal insults, sarcastic jokes, withering emails, and other displays of hostile behavior. Besides extracting a significant financial toll—such as the cost of anger management or other counseling, settling litigation by victims, and reorganizing departments or teams—workplace bullies inflict considerable human damage, driving employees out of organizations and increasing anxiety, stress, and burnout among those who remain. As they move up the corporate ladder, senior executives run the risk of becoming insensitive and unkind to others. Strive to treat people with dignity and respect, and establish workplace policies that prohibit abuse and aggression.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
That’s the historian Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle in his book The Story of Philosophy. Good leaders make excellence a habit in their daily lives, whether it’s being organized, keeping mentally and physically fit, managing stress, or staying current with the skills they need on the job. But the best leaders go above and beyond that. To them, excellence is never an accident: they approach challenges in creative and innovative ways and infuse even routine tasks with energy, positivity, and humanity. Learning from the strategies of highly successful CEOs helps leaders at all levels up their game personally and professionally.
illustration of a dark room with an open door
For some executives, the most difficult postpandemic lesson may be learning a different leadership style. Trained in traditional top-down management, these leaders are “in the last gasp of that form of control,” says McKinsey’s Bill Schaninger in this podcast on keeping top talent in the fold. “Now, they have this little inconvenient problem of their employees not playing ball. Leaders might want to reconsider the actual nature of their relationship with those employees.” That means adopting an egalitarian, connected, and empathic approach to managing people; making the workplace less transactional; and creating tailored, multifaceted employee experiences. Leaders who don’t do these things “will have a completely mercenary workforce,” Schaninger says. “And that will all be because they’ve had a death grip on what they thought control was. It’s not going to work.”
Illustration of a broken heart shaped lolipop
You may not have time for standard classroom learning, but a simple heuristic—3x3x3—can help you achieve your development goals quickly and effectively as well as replicate the process throughout your career. The idea is to define three goals over a three-month period and round up three other people to support and hold you accountable for achieving them. Setting these parameters forces learners to be concrete and specific in their goals—factors that are critical to goal attainment—and to understand the kind of support they need. The 3x3x3 approach is a part of intentional learning, in which every project, meeting, or conversation becomes an opportunity to grow and improve.
Lead better by improving yourself.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford office
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