Leadership is a concept that defies concise definition. Attempting to confine it within the boundaries of a word or phrase fails to truly capture its essence. Definitions serve as mere signposts directing us toward the greater pursuit of leadership, yet they inevitably falter in encapsulating its true depth.
The journey toward genuine leadership doesn’t transpire with a job promotion, a stack of coursework, or even through the pages of an insightful book. These might guide the way, but they don’t magically transform an individual into a true leader because leadership isn’t a trait ingrained in our nature.
Leadership Is Overcoming the Natural
Leadership isn’t inherent but rather a skill forged through conscious effort and deliberate action. In our natural state, our responses are often driven by primal instincts such as defensiveness against attack, disengagement when hurt, and avoidance of conflict. These instinctive reactions, although seemingly natural and gratifying in the moment, can yield detrimental consequences for both individuals and organizations in the long run.
To achieve excellent leadership, recognition of our individual traits and actions which may adversely affect others, becomes imperative. The journey toward becoming exceptional leaders necessitates self-awareness and a commitment to self-improvement. This transformation isn’t immediate — it requires consistent practice, dedication, and resilience.
Commit to Self-Reflection
Structured reflection stands as a cornerstone of this transformative journey. Journaling, whether through digital means or the traditional pen-and-paper method, serves as a conduit for introspection by scrutinizing the reasons behind our thoughts and actions.
Navigating this terrain of self-reflection isn’t without its challenges, however. Recognizing the need for change is one thing, but executing it consistently is another. Some alterations might flow effortlessly, while others might necessitate an arduous struggle. In such instances, the support of trusted confidants, who conscientiously observe and remind us when we deviate from our intended course, becomes invaluable.
Embracing the Unnatural: Challenging Learned Instincts
The misconception prevails that if a task feels arduous or uncomfortable, it must inherently be wrong. Yet within the realm of leadership, confronting discomfort and embracing the unnatural often heralds the path to growth and transformation.
In American culture, certain aphorisms — like “Work smarter, not harder,” “If it hurts, you overdid it,” or “Don’t let them see you sweat” — suggest that struggle or discomfort indicates a misguided approach, but genuine leadership thrives in the realm of discomfort. In these moments of unease, we confront our learned instincts and pave the way for authentic growth.
At its core, leadership hinges upon the capacity to navigate uncharted territories, challenge established norms, and muster the courage to defy instincts honed through experience. It necessitates a mindset attuned to understanding that the discomfort of the “unnatural” might just be the precursor to breakthroughs and advancements in one’s leadership journey.
Moving Beyond Natural Instincts: Practical Steps
Becoming a leader who transcends natural inclinations necessitates practical steps intertwined with intentional self-examination and a commitment to change. Here’s a roadmap to navigate this transformative journey:
Step 1: Identify leadership myths and expand comfort zones
Begin by acknowledging prevalent misconceptions surrounding leadership. List some myths you’ve encountered, recognizing how they might have constrained your understanding of effective leadership. Challenge these misconceptions to broaden your comfort zone, allowing space for unconventional approaches and novel perspectives.
Step 2: Commit to self-reflection through journaling
Establish a dedicated journaling practice aimed at self-reflection. Record daily occurrences and delve into the underlying reasons behind your decisions and actions. Use this as a structured platform to dissect your responses, thoughts, and behaviors, paving the way for a deeper understanding of self.
Step 3: Seek constructive feedback for communication improvement
Initiate a dialogue with a trusted team member whose insight you respect. Request candid feedback on ways to enhance your leadership communication. Embrace their observations and suggestions as invaluable tools for growth, recognizing that outside perspectives shed light on blind spots that self-reflection might overlook.
Step 4: Embrace discomfort and challenge learned tendencies
Consciously confront the discomfort that arises when challenging learned instincts. Recognize that what feels “natural” might not always align with effective leadership. Engage in tasks or decisions that disrupt the status quo, viewing discomfort as a sign of growth rather than a deterrent.
Step 5: Cultivate a mindset of continuous improvement
Foster a mindset of continual growth and improvement. Embrace the philosophy that genuine leadership thrives on constant adaptation and learning. Strive to evolve beyond the confines of familiarity, understanding that the pursuit of excellence in leadership is an ongoing journey rather than a finite destination.
The essence of transformative leadership demands recognizing that overcoming the “natural” often indicates progress. It requires the courage to navigate uncharted territories and defy learned instincts that constrain innovation or stifle potential.
Leadership isn’t defined by traits, but by the conscious and continual effort to refine one’s conduct and transform inclinations that impede collective growth. It’s a journey underpinned by self-examination, feedback, and embracing discomfort as a conduit for positive change. By walking this path with concerted intentionality, we can reshape our responses, foster environments conducive to excellence, and unlock our fullest potential as evolving leaders.
– Dr. Mike Merrill is a physician executive, author, and educator. His first career was as a newspaper reporter. He transitioned into medicine and completed a residency in internal medicine and preventive medicine. He worked at a state psychiatric hospital and a maximum-security jail. He worked as a hospitalist for 10 years, and was Chief Medical Officer of a small, rural hospital, where he oversaw its transformation into a high-quality teaching institution. He has experience as a medical director of a not-for-profit regional health insurer. Currently, he is the Chief Medical Officer of Brook Health, which provides remote care. He teaches a course on leadership at D’Youville University. Dr. Merrill has master’s degrees in epidemiology, journalism, and business.