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Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary Alberta

Where does good leadership come from?

There is a long-standing body of opinion that many great leaders are “natural born”, like it is a birth-right or the product of some specific environmental factors. That view is a bit elitist in my thinking, and I’m more inclined to believe that leadership attitudes, behaviours and skills need to be continually learned and honed throughout a leader’s career.

Even if some people prove to be more “natural” in their leadership style from the outset, that doesn’t mean they don’t have to practice and improve their game. When we think of great athletes with massive amounts of raw talent, we usually overlook the fact that most – like the recently deceased hockey great Guy Lafleur – were rigorously disciplined in their approach to continually learning and practising their skills. The combination of innate talent and professional rigour is what made them so spectacular.

Today, it’s clear we’re facing demands for more and improved leadership talent in all walks of life, from our communities and our businesses to the very top echelons of public life. Accordingly, all of us share some part of the efforts we need to take in building that talent pool.

Leadership at all levels

First, I strongly ascribe to the notion that all of us, wherever we sit in the organization, have an accountability to lead. Even if you’re one of the most junior people in an organization, that means being professional and thinking about the ways you can contribute to the success of others.

As a great example, having realistic expectations about the capabilities of leaders above you is crucial. Let’s face it – the president of the company is human, as much as we (or possibly they) might want to think they’re not. That means they’re equally subject to limits in their insight and creativity, or their ability to solve complex problems, as the rest of us. And yes, there are times where they get things wrong, sometimes quite badly so.

Leading from within your portfolio means not assuming that the leader above you knows everything, or can do everything with equal skill. Cut them some slack, and don’t be so quick to criticize when they don’t get everything right. If you see that they’re struggling with something – even with failures of their leadership style in a given moment – lend a helping hand and be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership expectations

At the same time, having subordinates give the leader their support in times of need is not giving the leader a perpetual pass on expectations. The leader has to do her or his part of the job as well.

That means the leader acknowledging that their status is not a God-given right, or without a requirement to improve. In my own leadership assessment and coaching work, some of the strongest and most effective leaders I encounter are ones who are highly self-aware about their strengths and weaknesses. Like those great athletes we might admire, they learn to reinforce their strengths in appropriate ways, and consciously work to mitigate their areas of weakness.

Paradoxically, some of a leader’s core strengths – like their personal confidence or charisma – can become a liability if that’s all they ever use and rely on. In times of crisis, for example, you can’t just smile or socialize your way out of a complex problem (ahem … some politicians and business icons take note). That might help to an extent, but the leader also has to be able to able to draw on the capabilities and creativity of others around them in order to develop effective solutions. Like the conductor of an orchestra or the captain of a team sport like hockey, the leader has to be able to mobilize and guide the efforts of others, as they can’t do it all alone. One-peson bands, however confident and self-inspired they may be, need not apply.

For me, strong and effective leaders combine a sense of personal connection with the discipline to constantly reflect on their performance and improve. If you’ve ever held a leadership role, responsible for getting the best out of others, you’ll know that there are some absolutely great days, many more merely good ones, and more than a few bad ones. Regardless of whether you feel you got it right or wrong that day, you draw on the insights of your successes and failures to be better tomorrow.

All set for more and better leaders? Let’s build them together.

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