What You Really Need to Lead

"Leadership is a team sport. That is to say, your success is inextricably linked to the activities and contributions of others. You are highly unlikely to become a leader or develop your leadership capabilities all by yourself."

- What You Really Need to Lead, page 17

I have a long-held fascination with leadership and have read innumerable books on the topic. Clearly I am not alone, as a quick keyword search of the Actionable Books website generated a list of 135 summaries on books tagged for leadership, four workshops, two podcasts and at least eight blog posts! Search for ‘books on leadership’ on Google and you get 340,000,000 possible hits while Amazon.com generates 177,099 possibilities.

So, what could Harvard Business School professor Robert Steven Kaplan possibly say in What You Really Need to Lead: The Power of Thinking and Acting like an Owner that hasn’t already been said? Like others before him, Kaplan believes leaders are made not born and that leadership is a way of thinking and acting rather than positional power and control. He covers much of the same leadership territory that other authors in the genre have noted (i.e. commit to learning, ask questions, build relationships, develop teams) however he tackles these familiar topics using the lens of “ownership” to convey his key messages.

Kaplan emphasizes that becoming a leader is a lifelong journey and more importantly, that it is not something we can do alone. While we need to take ownership for our own growth and development and do our jobs with a stronger sense of ownership over the outcomes, our greatest leadership challenge is guarding against trying to go it alone.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

It doesn’t have to be Lonely at the Top

"It’s a complex world, and you will never know everything by yourself. If you are isolated from others, you will be far less likely to be able to recognize your blind spots."
- What You Really Need to Lead, page 119

While I’ve read extensively on leadership over the years and promoted the value of collective wisdom in my work as a facilitator and consultant, the repercussions of leadership isolation that Kaplan highlighted resonated strongly with me. We live in a complex, rapidly changing world and there are not enough hours in the day to keep up to speed on everything. This holds true for leaders in established organizations as well as freelancers, entrepreneurs and anyone who telecommutes on a regular basis. We are all susceptible to developing blind spots about a myriad of business metrics and our own performance.

I particularly liked the questions Kaplan listed to help readers figure out if they were becoming isolated:

  • Do you seek advice? Do you interview your people (or others in your industry)?
  • Do you listen without interrupting? Do you think you have all the answers?
  • Are most of your interactions by email, phone or in person?

My answers to these questions were a wake-up call for me and maybe they are for you, too! I will definitely be making changes to ensure I stay connected with others more regularly with the goal of staying current on industry trends, best practices and identifying my pesky blind spots.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Take the Road Less Travelled

"Thinking and acting like an owner involves learning to explore intellectual as well as emotional matters. It involves knowing what to pay attention to in the chaos of your work and life, and knowing how to better understand yourself."
- What You Really Need to Lead, page 86

Kaplan suggests there are at least two leadership-related processes that we go through every day, even though we may not be consciously aware of them. One pertains to how we align priorities with vision. That is, knowing our unique contributions to key endeavors and then focusing on the critical tasks that enable us to provide that value. The second, possibly more challenging process, focuses on developing one’s self-awareness and using those insights to develop as a leader. The latter process is the road less travelled.

Kaplan points out that your capacity to understand yourself has an impact on your ability to do your job. If you are not willing to learn more about yourself, to reflect on why you do what you do (or why you don’t do what you should do), how can you possibly expect to excel at your job or inspire others to follow you? Life is not static and Kaplan suggests we put ourselves at increased risk for isolation and failure if we do not keep updating our understanding of ourselves. Once again, he suggests some strategies and questions worth considering:

  • Why can’t I delegate? Why do I delegate too much?
  • Why can’t I admit I made a mistake? Why do I need to assign blame?
  • Why didn’t I speak up at the meeting? Why did I monopolize the conversation?
  • Why was that decision so hard to make? Why can’t I change my mind?

Regularly seeking honest feedback from others regarding your strengths and limitations is another way to enhance your self-awareness and eliminate your blind spots. If you are serious about developing your leadership capabilities, you must choose the road less travelled and spend time getting to know yourself better.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Become a Transformer

"A leader that learns to cultivate others and be open to learning can more effectively fight through the natural isolation that leaders feel as they become more senior."
- What You Really Need to Lead, page 57

When my sons were growing up they loved toys known as Transformers. Transformers looked like ordinary racecars or animals, yet with a few simple adjustments magically morphed into robots with special powers. Individual Transformers could join together and create an unstoppable super robot. Have you figured out where I’m going with this analogy yet?

Aspiring leaders need to adopt a transformer mindset to improve business outcomes and minimize their isolation. Look for opportunities to shift from doer to mentor, from someone who has all the answers to someone who has thoughtful questions. Acknowledge the unique superpowers of your team members and colleagues. Rally them around a common vision so you achieve more collectively than you could ever achieve individually. As the opening quote noted, leadership is a team sport. Winning teams learn together and work as one unit. Effective leaders know success is a team effort and act accordingly.

What You Really Need to Lead distinguishes itself from its competition in the ‘how to become a leader’ genre by highlighting the avoidable fallout that accompanies unaddressed blind spots – be they about business know-how or personal habits and behaviours – and providing helpful questions and exercises to help leaders at all levels minimize those blind spots. I was surprised to discover that some of my past leadership challenges and lackluster results, as well as more recent ones as a self-employed consultant, were likely the result of social isolation – trying to do too much alone. Armed with this insight, I am changing how I do a few things, including the simple acts of using the phone instead of email more often and scheduling meet-ups over coffee or lunch.

What practices do you employ to minimize your chances of developing unintentional blinds spots? How do you make sure your development as a leader is a team sport?

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Dianne Coppola

ABOUT Dianne Coppola

I am passionate about leadership development, change management, community collaboration and…reading! I’ve been writing for the Actionable Book Club since 2014 and love to share my book insights with folks like you...
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