One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from my clients is, “How do I improve my leadership skills?” As managers, business owners or CEOs, leaders need to grow their teams and businesses to have the capacity to take on more significant challenges. And they know that to be successful in their endeavours, their leadership is a major contributing factor. But they often don’t know where to start when it comes to improving their leadership skills. My initial response is that they need to raise their standards. But what does raising one’s standards mean? In this article, I explain how this seemingly vague and generalised statement is actually a precise method to identify where to start developing one’s leadership capabilities. I also outline how to achieve it.
Improving one’s leadership skills is an individual transformational journey. So, raising one’s standards must also be unique to the individual. The key is to start by identifying your baseline, which is where you are now. Your baseline will determine the steps required to take you to the next level as a leader. So how do you identify your baseline? As looking within is challenging for most people without coaching support, an effective way to identify a baseline and work out the areas for improvement is to direct your attention to your external environment – your team. This is not to deflect the issue to the team. It’s because your team is a reflection of who you are and how you are being as a leader. Let me explain.
The results you produce are directly influenced by how you are being. The status of your team’s cohesion and performance provide valuable insights into this. It will tell you precisely what you need to work on and how to raise your standards to improve your leadership skills. Most leaders I work with already know the weaker areas of their team’s performance. They just haven’t connected their team’s performance to their own.
Some good questions to ask when looking into your team’s cohesion and performance are:
What frustrates you most about your team or certain team members? Be specific.
What required outputs are your team repeatedly not fulfilling?
If you could, whose behaviour would you change?
When I ask my clients these questions, the responses typically come flying at me without hesitation. Managers, team leaders and CEOs know what is not working as well as it could in their team. Usually, it’s been going on for some time before they seek help, and it’s often the cause of significant stress to the point where it keeps them awake at night.
The next series of questions are generally more confronting for a leader. They include:
How long has this been going on?
Why do you tolerate this behaviour?
What does it reveal about yourself?
What is stopping you from addressing this behaviour?
What is the behaviour costing you?
Longer pauses are common when I ask my clients these questions as they take time to digest and process. They also require them to go deeper. Typical responses I hear include, “I am too busy”, “I avoid addressing these issues”, and, “I can’t change people; I have tried, and it didn’t work”. Questions like these are confronting because they are like looking into a mirror. What you see may not always be pleasing. But this is precisely where any transformation begins. Why? Because when you look at your results, your life experience and daily triggers, you have easier access to what you need to change to conquer your next level of leadership. And your team is your mirror. It is a bit like detective work; you are looking for clues. And your team is where you will find them.
The process I have outlined can be challenging and uncomfortable. Indeed, it would be fair to say that putting up with unacceptable behaviour and lowering your standards is easier. However, there are significant costs associated with that. And if you are honest with yourself, you would know that to be true. The costs include diminished peace of mind, an ongoing nagging voice in your head that tells you something needs to change, and an impact on team performance and the business's bottom line.
There is a general perception that being uncomfortable needs to be avoided or that it is a sign of weakness or shouldn’t exist. When my clients go through this process and find it uncomfortable, I suggest they give themselves permission to be with their discomfort. When we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, we put up less resistance. Furthermore, maintaining a vision of the so-called ‘perfect leader’ can get in the way of confronting the team or certain team members to make necessary changes.
If you allow yourself to be uncomfortable and give up the need to be ‘perfect’, you will open yourself up to being more vulnerable and lower the protective walls you have built around you. Doing so will automatically open the space up for your team to be okay with being uncomfortable too. Then, by making a stand on what is acceptable and what is not for yourself and the team, you are raising your standards.
Teams appreciate it when their leaders assertively make a stand, even though it might make them uncomfortable at first. After all, everyone wants to be part of a successful team, and most will accept that this requires something from them, that they have to put in more effort and be more committed. Think of Steve Jobs and the unwavering demands he placed on his team, resulting in Apple’s phenomenal success. Jobs made no apology for having such high standards. His firm conviction combined with high expectations wasn’t a repellent; it was an attractor of people who were up to something in their life and were okay with being uncomfortable. The bottom line is when a leader has high standards, they attract people who are more committed and deliver a higher standard of performance. That’s because your team truly is a reflection of who you are as a leader.