There are many perspectives, opinions and hypotheses posited relative to leadership and leaders in general. These range from the great man theory which suggests that all leaders are born and no one can ‘learn’ to be a leader, through to behavioural theories which advance the view that leaders are not born but any willing person can learn certain behaviours to become an effective leader. There have been volumes of research into this subject and many theories have emerged, but quite a few myths have also come to the fore.
One is that good leaders are perfect and good leadership speaks to an absence of error. One arena where this view is most visibly held is within the church. Many join a church and follow its leadership thinking these individuals are ‘angels on earth’ – infallible and incapable of falling short of the mark of the high calling. This unfortunate view then leads to tremendous upset and even frustration if shortcomings found amongst these super-elevated individuals are revealed; but are we right in imposing such high standards of angelic perfection upon our human leaders? This question reminds me of a Bible phrase from Philippians 2:12, which states: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”.
From this short text, I am drawn to the words ‘work out’ and from its meaning, much can be gleaned relative to our role as leaders – inside or outside of the church. The Greek words translated as ‘work out’ here literally means: to continually work to bring something to completion or fruition, suggesting that effective leadership is a process of continuous improvement moving from one state to a higher, better and more effective state with time. The Japanese theory Kaizen speaks to a long-term approach to work which strives to achieve small, incremental changes in processes to improve efficiency and quality.
Effective leaders must seek to embrace a Kaizen attitude towards their own development and growth as leaders. Leaders are not perfect but they must seek to upgrade their skills, knowledge and even their abilities to better handle the new challenges in the 21st century. A leader who is satisfied with where he or she is and who does not see the value of continuously improving, will eventually be a hindrance to those whom they lead. Alternatively, those leaders who make those small, positive changes to their leadership style, communication skills, emotional intelligence and even their management skills will, in most cases, provide more effective leadership to their organizations.
Not only should leaders continuously improve and develop into stronger and better individuals and leaders, but they should also encourage those under their charge to do likewise. If followers are continuously improving themselves, there will be a concomitant improvement across our organizations. If I have five sales people who have each sought to improve their skills and their resulting output increases by just one per cent each, then collectively, my organization’s productivity has increased by five per cent. In our current global environment, a five per cent improvement in business outcomes can be significant and this can be achieved through continuous improvement.
I’ve already mentioned several ways individual leaders can improve themselves; I further submit that they can encourage this same continuous improvement in their organizations by creating and enforcing a regular training schedule/programme within the company. The training can be specifically designed to address the industry or organizational needs but it can go further and provide employees with opportunities to develop soft skills or other competencies empowering them to be even more effective in their roles.
As leaders we are not perfect, but it is our responsibility to make the effort to be better today than we were yesterday. It is also our responsibility to encourage the same small, incremental, positive changes within those who follow us. Leadership is about continuous improvement and it is this effort that will, over time, deliver big transformations to us and our varied organizations.