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Learn To Lead

Friday, February 25, 2011
Polishing Your Leadership Skills Can Pump Up Your Business

By Don Sadler

As a self-employed professional, you might see yourself as a boss, a business owner, a contractor or even a supplier for other business owners.

But do you see yourself as a leader?

Chances are, other people see you as one, even if you run a solo operation with no employees. Your role as an entrepreneur casts you as a leader in the eyes of people in your community. Your peers in professional and industry organizations probably think of you as a leader. To your clients, suppliers and colleagues, you’re most likely a leader, too.

If you have employees, wearing the leader tag may feel comfortable, even if leadership isn’t one of your natural strengths.

In either case, honing your leadership skills will help you grow your business. Better leadership skills will enhance your networking efforts. They will improve the morale and loyalty of employees and colleagues. And your leadership skills will help you convey your big-picture vision as well as produce business solutions.

Management Vs. Leadership

One of the biggest mistakes many entrepreneurs make is confusing management with leadership, says Andy Christiansen, president of High Capacity Leadership Training in Alpharetta, Ga., and the author of
“The 40:40 Principle” (WestBow Press, 2010).

“Management is more about overseeing the accomplishment of tasks—it doesn’t go much beyond the day to day,” says Christiansen. “Leadership is much bigger than that. It’s about taking people somewhere by inspiring and motivating them. If all you’re doing is managing, you’re not really leading.”

Christiansen says that the single most important leadership trait for any entrepreneur is vision.

“You can’t lead without vision,” he says. “However, some owners and entrepreneurs are really just task-oriented managers. This is fine, to a degree, because a big part of leading is making sure things get done. But business owners need to cast the company’s strategic vision and then share this with all of their employees and stakeholders.”

If others are able to see how their jobs fit into the big picture, they’re more likely to be excited and inspired—“and this should be the No. 1 priority of a leader,” Christiansen adds.

“The vast majority of people either don’t give themselves the opportunity to create a vision, or their vision is so vague that it’s not worth pursuing.”

When it comes to vision, Christiansen encourages following the acronym SEE by making sure your vision is:

  • Simple—state it in 20 words or less
  • Extraordinary—don’t be afraid to think and dream big
  • Energizing—your vision should accelerate your heartbeat and get you excited

“Take five minutes to think about what you want your business, your family or whatever to look like in a year, five years or 10 years, and write this down. That’s your vision.”

High Level Leadership

Robert Turknett, who holds a doctorate in education, and his wife, Carolyn Turknett, are the principles of Turknett Leadership Group in Atlanta, Ga., and the authors of “Decent People, Decent Company” (Intercultural Press, 2004). They’ve conducted extensive research into what makes business owners and executives effective leaders.

Based on their research, they created an approach that helps entrepreneurs better understand their leadership strengths and weaknesses.

The Turknetts identify four different levels of leadership.

“The higher the level, the better the entrepreneur is at engaging in behaviors that produce sustainable solutions and positive business results,” explains Robert Turknett.

  • Level 2: This individual operates primarily out of self-interest and uses others as tools to pursue his or her own goals. The leadership philosophy is, “Play by my rules, and I’ll get you what you want.”
  • Level 3: This individual is sensitive about how he or she is viewed by others, thereby avoiding conflict whenever possible. The leadership philosophy is, “If I show others consideration and respect, they will follow me anywhere.”
  • Level 4: This level describes a typical manager, someone who is primarily concerned with making sure subordinates achieve well-defined goals and follow proper procedures. The leadership philosophy is, “My main responsibility is to clearly articulate standards, goals and expectations.”
  • Level 5: An individual at the highest level of leadership learns from experience, has strong values and self-identity, and is willing to self-evaluate. The leadership philosophy is, “I must be willing to risk my position of authority (‘I’m in charge’) in the interest of deepening my substantive authority (‘I’m leading a successful team’).”

“Many people, even successful entrepreneurs and executives, get stuck at Level 3,” says Carolyn Turknett. “You might be able to make money as a self-employed person or business owner at this level, but you won’t be as productive or effective as a leader if you don’t move up the leadership ladder.”

Improving Leadership Skills

Use these five tips from the Turknetts and Christiansen to help improve your leadership skills.

  1. Identify your leadership strengths and weaknesses. Work to improve your weak areas.
  2. Practice integrity—don’t just preach it. Integrity must start at the top of any organization and flow down, says Christiansen.

    “People are looking for consistency between what leaders say and what they do. If you cut corners or wander into gray areas ethics-wise while stressing the importance of integrity to others, your words won’t carry much weight.”
  3. Take accountability seriously. Many owners set goals, but they don’t hold themselves accountable to someone else for actually achieving them, says Carolyn Turknett. She encourages leaders to write down the most important things they want to accomplish and then share this with a peer who will hold them accountable for results.

    “It sounds simple, but very few people actually do this.”
  4. Find a leadership role model. Christiansen offers this advice, “Spend time around visionary leaders you admire and consider mentors, or hire a leadership coach who can help draw out the leader within you.”

    He also says that it’s important to find mentors on both sides of age 40, especially for entrepreneurs who want to become better leaders.

    “Wisdom travels both ways—entrepreneurs especially need to seek input and feedback from people of all ages, because the business world is changing so fast.”
  5. Be open to receiving leadership feedback from others. This can be a formal leadership assessment or informal feedback from other leaders you respect. Christiansen recommends forming a personal board of directors that can give you objective, no-holds-barred feedback and advice on your leadership style, strengths and weaknesses.

Supervision And Leadership

If you have employees, improving your supervisory skills is a key part of strong leadership. Try these tips to become a better boss.

Practice consistency. Do your behavior and moods swing wildly? If so, employees will be less likely to communicate openly and honestly with you because they fear how you may respond. People follow and respect leaders with consistent actions and words.

Offer praise generously and criticism constructively. Try to catch your employees doing something right and praise them publicly for it. Use the 7:1 rule: Give seven pieces of positive feedback or praise for every one piece of negative. When you must correct or criticize, do so constructively by offering suggestions for improvement.

Trust and delegate. Assuming they’ve earned it, show your employees you trust them by giving them more responsibility and decision-making authority. If this is new for you and your employees, start out slowly and increase their responsibility over time. Delegation is hard for many owners who feel like they need to do everything, but it’s critical to strengthening leadership and helping employees grow.

Work on your communication skills. Great leaders are almost always great communicators—this includes speaking and listening. Keep communication simple and straightforward. For example, avoid using jargon. And give employees your careful attention. They can see right through halfhearted and distracted listening.

Set the right example. Chances are, your employees are watching what you do much more closely than they’re listening to what you say. Leadership means setting the right example in every area
of your business: honesty, integrity, work ethic, and how others (both customers and coworkers) are treated.

Be accessible. Do you really have an open-door policy? Or do you tend to hole up in your office and send the not-so-subtle message that you’re too busy to be bothered? Be sure to spend time every day practicing the fine art of managing by walking around.

“I really believe great leaders are made, not born,” says Christiansen. “Any business owner or self-employed individual can become a better leader by putting proven leadership techniques into practice.”


Don Sadler is a freelance writer who is working with mentors and role models to improve his leadership skills. Reach him at don@donsadlerwriter.com.

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