Friday, September 17, 2010

People Skills and Personal Strengths - The Core of A Leader's Effectiveness

Back when I did management consulting, I was often asked to help managers become better leaders. As I got to know the managers, I saw that some of them already had quite a bit of leadership ability. Others had very little.

The question was, what would it take for them to improve?

First, they would have to be good with people. This isn't simply a matter of personality. There are quite a few interpersonal skills—people skills. To name a few: listening, accepting feedback, giving feedback and resolving conflict. These are things you do with people. Skills are involved, and you can learn them.

Also, the people skills would take them only so far. They would need something else. A lot of people say, “It’s not just what you can do, it’s who you are.” I talk about this as “personal strength”—behavior patterns such as honesty, integrity, compassion, composure, perseverance, initiative and dozens more. Some people refer to this behavior as “character,” “heart” or “grit.” I don’t think of them as passive traits, attributes or qualities. They aren’t real at all until you manifest them in your behavior with people.

People are able to demonstrate personal strengths basically for one reason - it’s their habit to do so. It’s their way of acting with people.

Personal strengths are similar to leadership skills in that they are behavior patterns. Throughout your life, you learn to operate a certain way in a particular situation. When you listen, you do it a certain way. Or, say you have to deal with a crisis. If you take responsibility and tell the truth, it’s because that’s your way of behaving in that kind of situation.

I call these behavior patterns personal strengths because manifesting them in everyday behavior is hard to do. You aren’t born with these patterns. Throughout a lifetime, people learn to act a certain way in a certain situation.

The good news is that people skills and personal strengths can be learned or improved. Every individual is at a different stage along the path of personal development. People will be strong in some skills or strengths, and there will be areas they need to work on. They may find it easy to act with honesty and integrity, because they’ve always acted that way. But maybe it’s not so easy to take a risk. Or maybe they have trouble staying calm, cool and collected when the world’s on fire around them.

So if you’re someone who’s in charge of others, you should make the best use of your strengths, and you should probably always be working on some aspect of leadership. How do you know when you’ve “arrived,” when you can stop working on getting stronger as a leader?

I don’t think you ever arrive at the end of this learning journey. How good a listener can you be? How patient can you be? How compassionate? It’s like asking a golfer how good a golfer can he be? How good can a musician be? Would someone striving for excellence say, “I’m finally at the end of my learning. I’m as good at this as I can possibly be.” No, they achieve higher levels of excellence by continually striving to improve.

And that’s certainly not what a manager who wants to lead effectively would say. If you want to have effective leadership skills and personal strengths, you never stop improving. One reason is that there are dozens of people skills and dozens of personal strengths. No one can be strong in all of them. Mastery is a lifelong journey.

This journey begins when you’re in charge of your first group. You realize that getting the best work from people is hard. You make mistakes. But mistakes are one of the best ways to learn. Learn from the experience, learn from your feedback, learn from the coaching you get from more experienced managers. All these things can guide you. The learning happens when you actually try something different. You don’t have to wait for training to develop yourself as a leader.

Self-awareness is a big help. Listen to feedback. Take an honest look at yourself, and you’ll know what you should focus on next. And as you succeed as a leader, as you move up to accept more responsibilities, remember this: you can still continue your growth as a leader—one area at a time.

This article is based on my interview with Meredith Bell on this topic. Would you like to watch the video clip?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

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