Leadership is a Team Sport

In my last post, I started diving into a statement I used to close out sessions at our recent MGM Resorts Leadership Summit:

“Leadership is a contact sport, but leadership is also a team sport.”

In this post I will cover the second part of the statement, and discuss how you can leverage the help of others to improve your leadership.

Recall the premise of the first post was that leadership skills can be learned, practiced and, therefore, improved. Often we either use a formal leadership coach to help us develop or loosely term the steps we are taking as “leadership coaching.” That is not an accidental use of terms. Since leadership is formed through skills development, it is not terribly different from sports. Developing sports skills requires a series of steps and a loop to get better: learn, practice, do, obtain feedback, loop to the beginning. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that but you get the idea.

So the leadership summit we held was part of the process, a “learning” (or instruction) piece of the puzzle. But I warned the participants they need to take the initiative and dedicate their time and energy to the other elements. And my goal with this post is to widen your view on who might be able to help you in each step, as we often focus too narrowly on three groups:

  • Yourself. Pride can be a barrier to many areas of our lives, and we could do much better in many skill-based areas if we could minimize our pride. The belief that we can “figure it out on our own” hinders us in areas as varied as our golf swings, our parenting skills, our ability to roast a prime rib, and certainly our leadership skills.
  • Trainers. We assume the learn/instruct element of the equation has to be performed by a professional in the field. Yet when you were a kid learning to play basketball, did you not watch other kids and copy their moves, did you not discuss and practice plays with each other for hours after the official practice was over and the “coaches” were long gone?
  • Leadership coaches. Someone to provide “1-on-1” guidance throughout the other stages of the process. Coaches like this provide direct and detailed feedback, like a golf coach who breaks down your swing faults. Professionals who teach public speaking even use video replay, just like in sports.

Here’s the problem with relying on these “traditional” methods of the skills improvement process – they work for a very few, highly motivated people with certain learning styles. I took tennis lessons once, once. Was a pretty good tennis player, hated lessons. I learned through doing in that case. I got feedback from my peers. I found instruction from multiple sources – books, watching pros play on TV, etc.

Plus, most of us can’t afford the full cycle as described above – our companies may not make training available to us, or not frequently enough; and we can’t afford a leadership coach (hundreds of dollars PER HOUR). So what can we do?

We can rely on each other. It turns out, the best feedback for leadership skills is from the people around you – those you lead, your boss who watches you lead and your peers you interact with. Their feedback is free, all you have to do is ask. That may not be easy for you, but I’d rather you use up your motivation bucket convincing yourself to ask for feedback than on hiring a bunch of trainers…

Feedback from those around you is like the match score in a tennis game – it tells you a lot. Maybe not everything (you could maybe improve your form, etc.) but a lot. And those other areas of the skills development cycle? There are plenty of ways to get leadership instruction, let’s list a few:

  • Leadership books. Not free, but inexpensive. And invaluable. Don’t just read them alone, read them at the same time as others and discuss and critique and try to figure out how it applies in your leadership growth.
  • Mentorship. Free, except the cost of meals maybe. Cn be more difficult to access, but again I think this is a great place to spend most of your “get the guts to ask” bucket – a good mentor can teach you things you can never learn elsewhere. If you have an active mentor, you can ask them to observe you in meetings and other situations and offer feedback as well.
  • Your team. This one is interesting, but absolutely proven. When discussing leadership and related ideas together, you can learn as much or more from those you lead as they can from you. We call it upward mentorship sometimes when we are trying to make a funny story of a millennial teaching an executive how to use WhatsApp. But it applies across leadership skills. I hold “coffee chats” with my extended teams, and I find them incredibly educational – tips for areas I am working on, stories of great leadership at any level, and for me a bonus of identifying those with leadership potential and interest in growing their skills.

I gave some practical tips to the participants in our leadership summit to ensure you are leveraging others to develop your leadership skills. Here are some:

  • Set aside/block time on your calendar for reading articles on leadership development or participating in other training opportunities.
  • On your weekly team meeting agenda (wait, you don’t have a weekly team meeting – start one; Don’t have an agenda – create one), add a line item called “Leadership development” and find a topic each week to discuss with the team. As they get more used to it, turn the tables and ask them to come up with the topics.
  • On your weekly 1-on-1 meeting agendas with your team members (for this parenthetical, see the last parenthetical), add a line item called “How am I doing?” and make them answer it. Make sure they are specific and don’t just tell you the good things. How do you ensure they are specific and honest? You should have already shared with them things you are working on – a leadership action plan. So use it, don’t just say “How am I doing?” say “As you know I am struggling maintaining a positive presence in meetings with other departments – you were in two of those last week, how do you think I did? Did I ever look frustrated or disengaged?”

I hope this helps – I notice several other blog post topics that can come from this series (like how to have a productive team meeting), but for now please get active, commit yourself to rolling up your sleeves and developing your leadership skills, leveraging the help of others along the way.



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