Leadership Ain’t Paint by the Numbers

By Tom Davidson

What lucky kid doesn’t love to color with crayons, finger paint or shape clay? When I was a child, I loved to draw airplanes. I was particularly good at the PBY-5 and the Sabre Jet.

At one point, my parents gave me a “paint by the numbers” kit, which had small paint brushes, several brightly colored paint containers and pages of animal, car and airplane graphics with numbered spaces showing where to spread what color paint on each one. Eventually I grew into gluing together and painting model airplanes, and my older brother helped me hang dozens of them from the ceiling of our bedroom.

My parents encouraged the “artwork” – and the mess – for a while, either because they thought I was developing a talent or because it kept me quiet for reasonably long periods of time. But I never grew into any kind of artist.

Just because a person likes to talk, doesn’t make him a leader
Leadership is like that. We start out by developing basic communication skills, learning (as babies) that we can get what we want by exhibiting certain behaviors, and developing an individual style for getting along and getting ahead on the playground, random lessons that stick with us for years.

Pretty soon, the bullies and the wallflowers get jobs and get promoted into supervisory positions, usually not because of their leadership skills but because they were good at whatever individual job they were doing at the time. The most common mistake organizations make is promoting people for their technical skills, not their leadership potential.

Just because a person likes to talk, doesn’t make him a leader
In a study reported on in the Harvard Business Review, a global training firm found that supervisors are “operating within the company untrained, on average, for over a decade.”

Just as artists move up from random sketches to inspiring tapestries, leaders need to start early, learn simple models, collect basic principles, and study well-chosen mentors to get a solid foundation for leadership. Even then, we are only apprentices for years, practicing the basics so that we can learn from our own mistakes, develop our own range, and shape our own unique leadership style.

Only after years of practicing the basics do individuals learn enough to emerge as truly artful leaders
Whether you’re developing your own leadership or that of others, it’s important to do three things:

  1. Start early. It takes far more than the “28 days” that some people say it requires to break a habit. Depending upon how long the person has been practicing wrong, it could take 28 months or 28 years! Your new supervisors and managers should be sent to leadership training before they ever formally lead another individual so that they don’t have to unlearn too much.
  2. Adopt a learning mindset. Leaders need both the proper skill sets and the best mindsets to be successful leaders. This means that they need to practice, remain humble, be curious, be open to feedback, and be willing to take the necessary risks to get out of their comfort zones and make mistakes. Without a learning mindset, leaders stop learning just when they need to learn the most.
  3. Get a variety of experiences. In my book, The 8 Greatest Mistakes New Managers Make, there is a chapter titled, “One Trick Ponies Can’t Lead the Circus.” Contemporary leaders won’t be much good to their employers – or their teams – if they excel in only one area. The workforce, workplace and marketplace are too complicated for leaders to remain long as one-trick ponies. Get your new managers as wide a range of experiences as soon as possible, and ensure that they are actively learning from those experiences.

The author, Tom Davidson, CSP, PCC, SPHR is a former forester, fire fighter and survival instructor who learned leadership from the ground up to vice president of human resources and organization development. Tom trains new managers, coaches experienced ones, and speaks to audiences everywhere about leadership lessons from the great outdoors. He can be reached a

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