Leadership Proficiency: How Clear Is Your Thinking?

If you want to become a better leader or manager, how do you go about it? I’m not talking about technical skills. I’m talking about ways to improve your personal proficiency, so that you become a better leader of the people in your organization.

It seems some people are naturally predisposed to have personal insights that help them improve their leadership proficiency. But most are not. Most of us learn over time… unfortunately, the time involved can be extensive. If you’re in charge of leading people to high performance, you don’t have time. How do you accelerate your personal proficiency and leadership development?

Authors Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman write about this in The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Live By. To invest in yourself and become personally proficient as a leader they recommend seven areas to focus on:

  1. Practice clear thinking; rise above the details.
  2. Know yourself.
  3. Tolerate stress.
  4. Demonstrate learning agility.
  5. Tend to your own character and integrity.
  6. Take care of yourself.
  7. Have personal energy and passion.

Clear Thinking

Let’s just think about the first one: clear thinking. Boy, is that ever an important skill someone in charge to have! But it’s like saying a pretty face is needed to win a beauty contest. All the contestants know that and aspire to have the prettiest, but what is it and how do you get it? No amount of skilled makeup is going to change a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Clear thinking isn’t something you’re born with, although I suppose some of us are more predisposed. Most of us learn to develop it starting in school, but hopefully it’s something we work on throughout our careers. Clear thinking problems develop with each layer of mental complexity. By the time you’re managing or in leadership positions, you’ve got to juggle competing priorities and values. The complexities can be overwhelming.

I think we can do better at learning to have clarity of thought. Clear thinking requires you to get past the details to see the broader implications of data. You need to exercise good judgment to make decisions about where to spend time, energy and money.

To see patterns and not get lost in details, you need to learn to frame problems conceptually. You need to distill them into key components, key principles. You have to summarize and  communicate, tying into to broader objectives. You set priorities that will allow others to figure out the best ways to deliver on those principles.

Two Types of Change Challenges

I read something the other day about “change challenges” being of two kinds:

  1. Technical
  2. Adaptive

Technical changes require a new skill set and training to learn a new task. Adaptive challenges, however, require a change in mindset, a different way of thinking about a problem.

According to leadership expert Ron Heifetz, the biggest error leaders make is when they apply technical means to solve an adaptive challenge. Thus differentiating a type of challenge as technical or adaptive brings our attention back from the “problem” to the “person having the problem.”

If you apply this concept to clear thinking, you get a sense of how things are never as simple as they initially appear to be. We easily see things through one lens. “Oh, that’s a problem with X, and all that is needed is the X solution.”

We often don’t apply the full capacity of our brains to see the complexity. Why? Because we’re hard wired to see simple and easy. That’s what we’re looking for. When you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail. But clear thinking requires us to look broader and deeper.

Clear thinking requires free flow of information and the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. Knowing more about yourself is a start. Knowing more about human nature is an unending discovery process. Learning to see beyond the merely technical to the adaptive challenges, well, that’s an entire lifetime of continuous learning.

Clear thinking requires you to look at a problem from several angles. If something is simple and easy, look for the complexity you’re not seeing. Every problem involves people who have the problem.

What do you think about this? How clear is your thinking? How can you improve it in spite of the uncertainties and complexities in your industry?

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