August 9, 2021

How good leaders become great (and how you can, too)

How do new leaders become good? And good leaders become great?

Innate drive doesn’t hurt. There’s certainly an element of trial and error. And a little luck can also be helpful. But great leaders are made, not born, and the most important factor that sets them apart is their commitment to getting better.

I’m going to show you how they do it – and how you can, too.

Why you need a leadership development plan

One of the most valuable tools in my own leadership toolbox has been my leadership development plan. I use a version of this with a variety of clients, too, and I want to credit the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program for teaching me this concept, which my colleagues there continue to use today.

Most people who find their way into a leadership position are promoted because of their skill and subject matter expertise in other areas. Such promotions are well deserved, but new leaders generally have a lot to learn.

Professionals who recognize this and create an intentional process for learning can rapidly fill gaps between their subject matter expertise and leadership chops. But the fundamentals of leadership are not enough. The very best leaders know they are never done learning. This is the basis for my Lifelong Learning Leader (L3) model, which teaches professionals to seek and apply feedback as a habit – one that helps ensure they never stop growing.

And that is where leadership development plans come in.

Bringing feedback to life

If you have been following this blog for any period of time, you know my views on the importance of feedback – seeking it, reflecting on it, and applying it.

Back in the “leaders are born and not made” era, these principles didn’t always resonate. If you thought you didn’t have much to learn, perhaps you would have had no use for a leadership development plan.

Fortunately, we now know better.

Receiving and acting on feedback is a core skill of leadership. It requires fluency with self-reflection, a willingness to be vulnerable and a commitment to making changes that improve the way you show up at work. You will never see these attributes in a job description, but trust me – recruiters are looking for them!

Building your own leadership development plan

Leadership development plans are the core engine of the L3 model. Every time you get feedback (or when you notice something on your own that you think is worth changing), you can follow this stepwise process. It works for any type of feedback and can help you achieve any sort of goal. These are the steps:

Identify the growth area

This involves taking in feedback and examining what you learned. Start with your strengths. This is your platform for growth. Then find your growing edge. We all have one – it’s not weakness, failure or any kind of shortcoming. It’s an opportunity.

Determine what growth looks like

With your growth area in mind, imagine what progress would look like. Consider what you have control over and what you can change now. Helpful questions include:

  • How can I do this differently?
  • hat am I ready and able to do to change my situation?
  • What tactics are available to me?
  • Are there roadblocks I need to address?
Put learning into action

There are a lot of ways to develop. Some ideas:

  • Identify a mentor, role model or coach who can help
  • Request continual feedback from a supervisor or trusted friend or colleague
  • Take a class
  • Read a book
  • Ask for a stretch assignment at work
  • Augment your knowledge in whatever way your goal requires (such as learning key software needed to develop budgeting skills)
Get accountable

Growth is hard. It helps to have support. Communicate your growth area and plans to someone you trust who can serve as an accountability partner. It helps if this person will not only check in on your development, but also provide feedback to you themselves. Then you can work, grow, examine your progress, and act on that feedback – again and again.

Leadership development in a busy life

It would be nice if your leadership development plan were your only priority, but that’s not realistic. I recommend people use 90-day cycles. Pick a growth area, make a plan, work on it for 90 days, then assess. Haven’t hit your stride? Keep going, perhaps with a slightly different approach if needed. You’ve hit your goal? Celebrate your success, then look for the next area where you can focus. There’s always more, but the beauty of the L3 model is when you make a habit of seeking feedback and rolling it into a leadership development plan, you hone a reflex that will serve you – truly – your whole life long.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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