Everybody can be a leader. The question is how to become an effective one!

Linda Gasser is an ever energetic professor at Cornell University, from which she holds a doctoral degree in Organizational Behavior. She is also an experienced trainer in organizational development and change, leadership skills, executive coaching, interpersonal dynamics, and conflict management. As an experienced leader herself, having served as an Executive Director at the Central Europe Human Resource Education Initiative, she will share her tips, tricks and opinions with the civil society representatives at the NGO Leadership Workshop.  

Since her workshops focus on understanding and developing leadership skills, in the interview, we wanted to know:

– whether there is any ideal leadership behaviour, 

– if so, how to acquire it,

– why self-awareness is crucial for any budding leader and how it helps team dynamics.

Archive: William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan

Ms. Gasser, recently, there has been a great increase in the interest in leadership courses worldwide. People are eager to learn about leadership and how to get better at it. However, the question is, can everybody be a leader?

Indeed. Anybody can be a leader. But not everybody is going to be a stand-out leader, an effective one or a very visible one. 

There are certain qualities that leaders tend to exhibit. For instance, they are able to influence others, set an example for them, walk the talk, take responsibility, make a difference to others. Also, if they are able to nurture talents in others, make them excited about the common vision, strengthen the team. Then, they can be considered leaders. 

Is there any concrete type of personality that predetermines effective leadership skills? 

Even though there is not one perfect leadership personality per se, there are qualities and traits that a lot of researchers say leaders tend to have.

Probably the most important one is self-awareness. Leaders have to be willing to become more self-aware —which means to try to understand themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, how they react in certain situations and why. That is why leadership qualities assessment tools are useful. For example, if leaders know what upsets them when interacting with colleagues, they can learn how to behave differently in such situations. So consequently, such tools can help leaders not only analyse their personalities, but also to work better with other people.

Leadership is a social process. Leaders don’t lead in a vacuum. They lead other people.

Can leaders intentionally change their characteristics, adapting to the needs of their colleagues and the organization?  

There is one great difference I need to point out here. Personality is not the same as behavior though it may influence behavior.

If we talk about personalities, we are generally speaking about something people are born with and tend to react in accordance with by habit. However, personality does not need to dictate someone’s behavior in response to their reactions.  People can choose and learn to change their behavior depending on the situation they are in or people they interact with. 

For instance, you might be born right handed. However, if you injure your right hand, you can learn to write with your left hand. It is neither comfortable, nor easy, and it might not look pretty,  but if you practise it long enough you will get better and be more comfortable doing it. So, you can change. The same idea applies for reactive behaviors. If you stop and look for a moment at what the situation requires, then by choosing to change your usual behavior you might get a different, and many times better, outcome that better matches the circumstances. 

Changing behaviour doesn’t really sound simple. So how do we do it?

Mostly, it is a matter of self-awareness and taking time to reflect.  There are  also some tools that can assist people in this. Training, such as the NGO Leadership Workshop, is one of them. Workshop participants will have a chance to get to know other people who share their problems and challenges. They will exchange experience and support each other. They will learn more about their preferences and those of others and their own common reactions. And they will learn strategies to use.

Further, finding external help is useful, too; for example, getting a coach or a mentor who can help you notice when you are going off track or when you are reacting or behaving in a way that is not conducive to creating a good outcome. It is also useful to purposefully search out situations in which you can practise desired behaviors or can work with somebody who is a role model for you from that perspective.

For leaders, it is also very important to have a learning orientation or a so-called “growth mindset” that lets them be open to new things and to further development. 

Once leaders start changing their behavior in certain situations, their attitude about the value of this generally follows. Simply, if someone starts doing things differently, as a result they will probably get different feedback from their colleagues.Thanks to that they unconsciously make their new behavior an internal part of themselves. This ongoing process of adjustments leads to better work communication and overall positive results in teams.

The process of changing one’s habits and behaviour seems rather personal. Should the leaders communicate openly to their team members what they are going through?

Good leaders are transparent. They communicate a lot and do not keep team members in the dark. This does not mean they must communicate very personal information, but it does mean they are not afraid to share what is happening, or if something is difficult, or if they could use help. Followers need that transparency. They need to understand what the reality is, and who their leader is. 

When leaders get 360-degree feedback from their colleagues, we encourage them to go back to their teams, acknowledge the feedback, good or not, and thank them for it and discuss what they will do in response to it. People just need to know they are heard by the leaders they follow. 

This is something we will also dig deeper into at my workshops. We will reflect on one’s strengths and weaknesses. And learn how they can use the knowledge of themselves and knowledge of the context which they work in, and who they work with to become more effective leaders altogether. 

Because as I had said, everybody can be a leader. But the question is how to become an effective one!

Find out how to become an effective leader and further your skills by applying for our NGO Leadership Workshop!

Author: Simona Lučkaničová