By Jean Leslie & Ramya Balakrishnan
Most leaders want to be perceived as strong, tireless, resilient, and healthy. But the truth be told, they are human and leaders at all organizational levels have personal shortcomings.
A recent CCL study, using a machine-learning algorithm called “topic modeling,” analyzed 34,000 leaders’ typed responses to the question, what are the three most critical leadership challenges you are currently facing?
The study found leaders have self-improvement development needs and many are plagued with self-doubt. The research identified seven themes to describe the issues associated with leaders’ self-described personal inadequacies:
- Learning how to be one’s “ideal self”
- Managing frustrations, tasks, people, and time
- Confronting personal limitations about one’s ability or readiness to lead
- Adapting leadership style to changing conditions
- Recognizing one’s impact on others
- Building a personal leadership brand
- Flexing one’s leadership approach
Personal leadership growth, the process of evolving and learning to adjust to changes in oneself, is an essential part of leadership development. Think of it as learning how to mountain climb. You can’t get to the top without the proper training, mental and physical agility, gear, choosing the right peak for your skill and comfort levels, and starting to take ownership in your role as mountain climber. Once you get proficient and own your role as a mountaineer, you can think about the ultimate to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Aspects of leaders’ selves in need of attention also vary by proficiencies.
Personal Leadership Growth Needs by Management Level
New leaders. New leaders face personal growth challenges that the CCL researchers labeled, learning how to be your “ideal self,” and with the theme, managing frustrations, tasks, people, and time. Improving oneself to be more like the ideal include:
- Developing confidence
- Being a better listener
- Improving flexibility
- Effectively dealing with conflict
Managing frustrations, tasks, people, and time creates feelings of frustration with coworkers and being overwhelmed by the need to manage inefficiencies. The source of leaders’ frustrations include:
- Direct reports who need considerable guidance as to how to be more productive
- Direct reports who have resistant attitudes toward change
- Communication and feedback styles in need of adjustments to work effectively with coworkers
Mid-level leaders. Mid-level leaders confront doubts about their ability or readiness to lead and adapt their leadership style. The theme, confronting personal limitations, describes conditions that leave leaders feeling inadequate. One leader described the struggle as “I don’t feel like I always convey my messages well; I struggle with speaking in front people and choosing the right vernacular to express my thoughts. I feel like I do a great job in writing when I’m able to reflect on my thoughts, but when I have to speak off the cuff I struggle.” Mid-level leaders in this study express their internal struggles as:
- Needing to work in ways that “go against my grain,” to overcome self-doubts or the doubts of others about one’s ability or readiness to lead
- Managing personal conflicts or dilemmas
- Having the courage to do the right thing
For mid-level leaders, the challenge of modifying or adapting one’s leadership style to changing conditions includes:
- Being less dominant in interactions
- Being less directive and actively seeking input from others
- Being more open and approachable
- Managing emotions, and/or being more assertive and self-confident
Senior Executives. Senior executives’ (executives and senior leaders in charge of functions, divisions, or business units) challenges include recognizing their impact on others and building personal brands. Recognizing their impact describes struggles to get deeper understandings of how they are perceived by coworkers. The issues senior executives describe are:
- Delivering difficult messages in an appropriate style
- Projecting confidence
- Improving approachability
The theme, building a personal brand, reflects leaders’ challenges building credibility as an organizational leader. The theme includes actions:
- Gaining the trust of senior managers and other stakeholders
- Enhancing visibility in the organization
As one leader noted, “My challenge is unlocking my full potential as a leader by raising my own confidence level and exposure within the organization allowing me to engage at a higher level of thinking/strategy.”
C-Level Leaders. Leaders in C-suite are in need of techniques for flexing their leadership approaches including changes in how one:
- Changes their leadership style for different people
Mid-level leaders and C-level leaders are both aware of challenges associated with changing their leadership styles in accordance with the situation. C-level leaders, however, express a nuanced or complex way of understanding how to adapt their way of interacting with coworkers. One C-level leader noted, “I need to develop a broader set of influencing styles. I tend to lead with content, and need to work harder at understanding my colleagues’ underlying motivations to flex my approach and maximize influence and positive outcomes.”
Chances are you can empathize with these leaders. What can you do?
Most people don’t like feeling vulnerable. This is especially true of people in leadership roles. Successful leadership growth requires improving one’s habits, behavior, actions, reactions, and mindsets. Here are some tips for you to consider.
Share your personal growth challenges. Becoming the leader you want to be is a process of growth, discovery, and challenge. Sharing shortcomings with coworkers can have a profound positive impact on others as well as yourself. Sharing what’s appropriate in the workplace and having boundaries around what needs to be kept to yourself is important before starting. You don’t want to end up in the situation where your own words are used as evidence against you.
Ask for help and be open to receiving help. Asking for help can be extremely difficult for anyone. Admitting that you don’t know something or how do solve a problem is not a weakness, it’s a strength. It means you are willing to be vulnerable and are willing to deal uncomfortable emotions.
Keep your composure under pressure. Feeling vulnerable can lead to fear, especially fear of failure. During difficult situations, demonstrating composure or self-control is a leader’s competitive edge. Leaders who are calm and predictable under pressure put co-workers at ease.
Keep a close eye on your ego. Hubris, an extreme version of self-confidence and pride, has led to the downfall of many leaders. Success can lead to arrogance, a loss of humility, and blindness to one’s weaknesses and to others’ contributions.
Learn from your mistakes. As difficult as it may be, handling a difficult situation with poise and grace is key to moving forward. This includes admitting a mistake, forewarning others so they are not blindsided by it, and taking action to analyze and fix the mistake. The worst you can do is to hide the mistake, blame others, and dwell on the situation.
While personal leadership growth may feel very intimate, the reality is that this kind of growth is shared and necessary for effective leadership. As a leader grows in his or her leadership ability, the entire world may benefit from it.
Ramya Balakrishnan Associate Data Scientist
Jean Leslie Director, Strategic Initiatives & Senior Fellow