How to Become an Extraordinary Leader – 3 Unexpected Lessons

When I was nominated for a leadership training at work, I was honored but skeptical I would learn anything substantial.   I am glad however to be proven wrong.  In the last five months, I have learned more about my leadership style and leadership brand than I had ever expected.   Even better, I am already applying what I learned at work and seeing results.  Here are the three unexpected leadership lessons I learned about how to become an extraordinary leader.

Lesson #1: Extraordinary leadership is about strengthening our strengths vs. fixing weaknesses

Growing up Asian, I always thought to become extraordinary I must eliminate all weaknesses – i.e. score 100 on tests, get all As, and be a perfectionist at work.  In the last 20 years of work, I learned to stop being a perfectionist.   However, I still heavily focus on learning what I am not good at as a leader and put a lot of energy into fixing those.

It was refreshing to learn at this training from Zenger Folkman that becoming an extraordinary leader is about strengthening my strengths vs fixing weaknesses. There is no perfect leader.  Steve Jobs is a great example of this – a dynamic, visionary leader and a terrible people manager.    The whole concept actually makes a lot of sense, as no one really can be good at every aspect of leadership.  Just like a company must focus on its core strength vs trying to be all things to all people, a leader also needs to follow the same concept.  It’s better for me to pick a few leadership qualities that I am already strong at and make that stand out above all else.  That’s what will differentiate me as a leader.

This leadership lesson is quite freeing for me.  I realized I don’t have to change who I am or overwhelmed myself with “fixing everything.”  All I have to do is tweak a few things in my leadership style to make it even better.  For example, I am already a high achiever and gets results wherever I work.  I also collaborate well with teams and partners.  What I need to tweak is my communication style in some difficult situations.   I know how to do this in some circumstances but not all.   Selecting this as something to focus on is both achievable and will make a significant difference in my leadership effectiveness

vulnerable leaderLesson #2: It’s okay for an extraordinary leader to announce ourselves and show vulnerability

I learned this from one of the leadership speakers at our training.  I really appreciated her direct communication style, confidence, and simple wisdom.   She shared that it’s okay to announce yourself to your team and partners.   For example,

  • Let them know what I expect from them as they newly join my team (e.g., I expect you to ask questions if you don’t understand something.  Otherwise, I will assume we are on the same page)
  • Let them know If i am having a challenging day (e.g., I am feeling impatient today)

This second bullet really surprised me, as I always thought I must stay strong for my team every day – never show that I am sweating about anything.   She shared that it’s not needed.   Teams actually appreciates it more if I show that I am human.  I can also benefit by announcing myself  as it makes me more predictable to those on my team and for my partners.

As a result of this lessons learned, I set up 1 on 1 with each of my team to get their feedback on my leadership style as well as better share what I am expecting from them.   I am inspired by how it’s been received and how much closer I am to my team as a result.

Lesson #3: An extraordinary leader knows when to change the game in difficult, emotional situations

One of the best lessons I learned from training was about how to deal with difficult situations.  When something unexpected happens at work, we can get

  • very emotional
  • potentially aggressive
  • ready to prove someone wrong
  • ready to escalate

However, stepping back, we know none of the above actually helps with dealing with a difficult situation.

  • It’s hard to stay calm and think clearly.
  • It’s hard to create a win-win situation
  • It’s hard to listen to a different point of view
  • It’s hard to actually achieve any positive results.

deescalate

Instead, in a difficult situation, focus on one thing first – De-escalate!  When I am in a difficult situation, my natural instinct is to use logic and facts to resolve it.  That doesn’t work when people are highly agitated.   When I use logic and facts in these situations, it actually can make it worse, as all it will come across is I am trying to “strong arm” them into agreeing with me.  Even if I have all the right facts, it’s the wrong timing to use it.

I learned that the smartest thing for us all to do in a highly emotional situation is De-escalate.  First we have to change the game in our mind, from one where we want to win, to one where winning is about getting everyone to calm down.   De-escalation can come in two main flavors.

  1. Listen patiently to an opposing point of view.   This can be so hard but very necessary.  If I don’t try to listen to others, I cannot in turn expect them to listen to me.
  2. Recommend pausing and regroup later.  If someone is really agitated then it’s better to stop it short and ask to meet a day or 2 later.    Nothing will get resolved when one side is yelling at the other.   It’s okay to call the elephant in the room and stop it short.  This gives people a chance to cool down and come back a little calmer a few days later

The real work begins now that I have concluded training.   I aim to improve upon my leadership strengths, announce myself to my team and partners to increase understanding and de-escalating situations whenever necessary.   I look forward to evolving on my leadership style and brand with this new found knowledge.  I hope these 3 leadership lesson learned can also help you in your leadership journey.

Your comments:  What are the most important leadership lessons you have learned?  Do any of these three resonate with you?  please share your comments and questions below

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Best wishes to you on your journey to becoming an extraordinary leader!  I am always in your corner. 

Lei