Becoming a better leader: It's... complicated.

People managers and human resources managers have the same goal: Both want people managers to be good at guiding, inspiring, and enabling their subordinates. Overall: Becoming a better leader. But how can HR managers help people managers become better? And how can people managers improve their leadership skills on their own?

The challenges of leadership

Unless you are a "born leader" - if indeed there is such a thing -
have to be acquired. It's demanding to be responsible for a group of people.

You have to

  • constantly juggle complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and pressure,
  • offer your employee a sense of clarity, focus, direction,
  • inspire, motivate, and engage your workforce every day, and
  • integrate new recruits and enable the development of existing team members

On top of that, leadership positions can often be quite solitary: People managers, more often than not, get hardly any honest feedback from those around them unless they specifically ask for it.

Requirements for becoming a better leader

All those challenges are
to become better as a leader. If you face complex demands, problems, and challenges on a daily basis, you want to have the best tools at your disposal to deal with those issues. There are a few prerequisites, however, without which leaders won't be able to advance their leadership skills:
  • Willingness to embrace new approaches: This may sound harmless, but often real progress is inhibited by fear of entering new territory. Don't be afraid to make mistakes on the way (you will, but that's okay) and don't dismiss a new approach because you think it may be unsuccessful (some will be, but that's okay, too).
  • Ability to self-reflect, self-analyze, and self-criticize: If you want to improve on your skills as a people manager, you need to be able to take a step back, look at how you have dealt with people in the past and how this has influenced both their behavior and their mood and motivation.
  • Recognition of their own personality: There are many different ways for becoming a better leader - and everyone has to find their individual way. You should start by recognizing and embracing your individual personality, your most prominent character traits. Then ask yourself: How can those traits help you as a people manager? And where could they be potentially harmful instead of helpful? Having a sound awareness of your potential leadership strengths and weaknesses on the basis of your personality will help you build on your strengths and avoid the pitfalls of your weaknesses.

Starting the improvement process

The beginning of improvement is the recognition of areas that need improving. For that, it is helpful if you try to remember difficult situations you had in the past, conflicts, failures, people leaving the team or becoming unmotivated and unengaged. Those situations will be the foundation of your improvement process. For each situation,
  • use sticky notes to make a "map" of the elements that are involved in this issue, one note for each single element, then
  • use different notes to describe what your ideal resolution of the issue would look like,
  • list potential hurdles that may prevent the resolution, and at the end
  • list a couple of actions you will take to resolve the matter.

Feel free to tackle one sub-issue at a time. Go back to your "map" once a week to check your progress. You can remove sticky notes that are "done" - until your map is blank. This may sound like a silly gamification of a serious matter, but visualizations like that can actually help a lot with understanding and solving a problem.

Should HR managers be leadership coaches? Or is self-improvement the way to go?

As you may have guessed, the answer is: It depends. If you are a people manager and feel comfortable with going through this process on your own, by all means do. If you think you would benefit from an outside perspective (hint: most of the time you will), ask HR if they offer leadership coaching (internal or external). As an HR manager, you could either encourage your people managers to regularly reflect on their leadership skills and offer them guidelines they can follow - or proactively approach individuals you feel may need help with step one: Recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses.

What is your personal experience, either as people manager or HR manager? Do you think it is generally advisable to have a coach guide the improvement process or is it, in your opinion, more efficient if leaders work on their skills independently?

If you would like to read more about the topic of leadership, then download the Premium eBook Become the leader you are by Lindsay Wittenberg. Also, have a look at our website bookboon.com where you'll find many more Premium eBooks.