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Fit to Lead: Why Technique Alone Won’t Make You A Good Leader

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Author: Joe Bower (LinkedIn)
Bio: Joe Bower is the Senior Manager of Customer Success at the cloud computing company Akamai. He was a people manager within Akamai’s award-winning Linode Customer Support department before pioneering Linode’s Customer Success Team, with the goal of drive value for customers using Akamai’s cloud computing products and services.


So you’ve decided to become a leader! Excellent! Before you attempt to digest the endless sea of books, lessons, webinars, coaching sessions, and motivational posters out there, I’d like to share a piece of advice I’ve come to treasure during my tenure as a leader:

Just as perfecting your free-throw won’t make you an NBA superstar, or having a picture-perfect right hook won’t make you an olympic-grade boxer, technique alone will not make you an effective leader.

That’s not to say that technique is unimportant – you DO need to master techniques around feedback delivery, policy creation, business planning, emotional intelligence, active listening, etc. and you will find tons of courses focused on these subjects topping most lists on Udemy, Coursera, and Harvard Business Review.

But you will not become a fully effective practitioner of leadership unless your technique is matched by your fitness. Thankfully there are ways to deliberately improve your fitness for leadership, which I plan to explore in this series of posts.

What do we mean when we say fitness for leadership?

Fitness, as defined by Oxford dictionary is “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.”

How would you describe the qualities of a good leader? Such a broad question inspires broad answers – words like “fairness”, “courage”, “vision”, or “integrity”. These terms go beyond mastery of specific techniques, and instead speak to a person’s character. Fitness, or put another way, the character of a person – their motivations, their morals, and their way of seeing the world plays as much a role in their ability to lead as their collection of practical skills.

In fact, matching overdeveloped technique with underdeveloped fitness/character can backfire – creating inauthentic, manipulative relationships between managers and their employees. Employees generally understand when they’re being manipulated, and only tolerate it as long as their other needs are met. Leaders who mistake such tolerance for loyalty will find themselves on shaky ground.

So how do we know if we possess the character of a good leader?

Develop Personal Core Values

Chances are, you’ve encountered Core Values. Most contemporary companies invest significant effort defining and refining departmental or company-wide core values. These serve as a collection of core virtues that set forth who a company is.

But if someone were to ask you what your personal “Core Values” are, how would you answer? Personal core values also represent who you are – building blocks of your character and decision-making. Once developed, these are non-negotiable aspects of yourself. You would sacrifice to preserve them and consciously-made violations would cause you great distress.

Maybe you can name these easily – and if so, great! You’re ahead of the game.

For those of us that might need some help in discovering their own, we can reflect on challenging situations we’ve experienced and the strong emotions these memories may carry:

  • What caused such a strong emotional reaction to those situations?
  • Did something in particular see you through to the right decision when the path was unclear?
  • Did you disagree with a course of action made by someone else?
  • Was your point of view vindicated or disproven? Why?
  • Did you feel remorse about an action you took? Pride? Why?

Reflection and self-discovery on questions and experiences like these is a lifelong process, so don’t worry if you can’t immediately generate an impressive 5-value list. Begin with a single Core Value and if you remain conscious of your behavior, you’ll discover more of these drivers over time. Models like MVPI, DISC, and Meyers-Briggs can help you explore some of your naturally developed personality traits as well. You may even identify values that you don’t naturally exhibit, but would like to. That’s exactly the sort of process that increases fitness in a leader.

Take two of my personal Core Values as an example: “Fairness” and “Courage”. One of those (fairness) has been with me for as long as I remember, and acts as one of my primary sources of authority (more on “sources of authority” in a later post) – but the other (courage) is one that I have to push myself to embody.

I am not a naturally conflict-oriented person, so it requires conscious effort in some cases to access that second core value. I’ve included it in my Core Values not because it’s easy or natural for me, but because it’s part of who I choose to be. To increase your fitness for leadership, name and strengthen your natural characteristics, but also explore and incorporate new ones that you feel define who you would like to be as a leader.

Once you’ve become acquainted with the foundations of your character you can align your actions with those foundations – paving the way for true authenticity. Difficult situations become less of a challenge for an authentic leader – allowing you to maintain direction and confidence during uncertainty and build trust with your team members and your superiors.

Take some time to reflect on your own non-negotiable core values. Write them down, describe them to yourself and build out a firmer understanding of who you are. Think about situations in the past where you stayed true to those values, or situations where you fell short of them. Once you understand some of the foundational principles that underpin your character, you’ll be able to focus on the subject of part 2 in this series on leadership fitness: Developing Your “Power Source” of Motivation.

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