Growing Your Leadership at the Edges

By Tom Davidson

Just as trees grow at the tips and on the edges, so do leaders. And that takes getting out of our comfort zones.

You know what it’s like to sign your name with your dominant hand. For most people, doing so is easy and effortless. You don’t have to think about it, because it’s well practiced and natural. Now try signing your name with the other hand. Unless you’re naturally ambidextrous or have practiced it, signing with your non-dominant hand is slow, uncomfortable and clumsy, not to mention illegible!

If your job never required you to do anything that was uncomfortable, you could go on doing what comes naturally and hardly ever have to worry about developing your other hand. But that’s just not possible as a leader. All of us, from front line supervisor to CEO, have to develop a range of skills that don’t come naturally because of our personalities or repeated experiences.

Examples include public speaking, having frank conversations, rating someone else’s performance, delegating, dealing with politics, and coping with ambiguity.

If you want to grow as a leader, the very things that make you uncomfortable are likely to be the learning edges you need to develop. While you may never be as artful at these less-natural skills, successful leaders need to have access to be at least proficient in these important competencies as well as their natural strengths.

Here are three tips and a classic resource for leadership development at the edges:

1. Volunteer in your community and take on a challenging assignment that you would ordinarily avoid. Not only will the task be unfamiliar to you but also getting outside of your daily work environment will give you the chance to try new skills among people who don’t know you and are less likely to keep you in your comfort zone. Such roles also help leaders learn to operate in ambiguity and develop leadership skills without authority. Leaders of true volunteers can make the best leaders of paid workforces.

2. Take on an unpopular assignment in your current workplace, like organizing the annual picnic, conducting an audit, or facilitating a contentious meeting. Look for the kind of assignment in your organization where no one wants to step up because it is high visibility, high risk, politically charged or all three! This kind of assignment helps a leader grow a “thick skin,” learn resilience, and cope with being unpopular.

3. Look for a temporary assignment in a part of your organization that is unfamiliar to you or represents a large change in scope. Contemporary organizations that want to grow their leaders may get creative in helping you find such roles without leaving your current one permanently. Taking on a role where you are not the content expert, forces one to develop process expertise, develop people skills, depend upon the expertise of others, and learn from plenty of mistakes. In short, it is likely to be a humbling experience, one of the traits of good leaders that are in shortest supply.

For more information and many more ideas, I recommend Eighty-eight Assignments for Development in Place by Michael Lombardo and Richard Eichinger, which is available here

Leadership is a lifelong skill, but if you don’t get deliberate in putting yourself in challenging situations, your journey will be longer and slower. It’s the nature of learning and the nature of leadership.

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