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Want to be an effective leader? Identify your beliefs

My client, Paul, is a senior vice president at a sizable urban hospital.
 
Paul has learned a lot about the inner workings of hospitals over the years and believes his expertise and experience are his greatest leadership assets.
 
"It’s important for me to share my knowledge," he told me.
 
In team meetings and one-on-one conversations, Paul informs, teaches and suggests at every opportunity.
 
"It’s my job," he says, "to help others learn."
 
Paul hired my company to assess the strength of his leadership team, and I spoke extensively with his seven direct reports at his request. To a person, they appreciate their boss’s knowledge. His advice, they say, usually is well thought out, helpful and accurate.
 
But there’s sharp divergence in their degree of respect for him.

Opposing views of a leader
The most glowing praise for Paul came from the two members of his team whom I judge to be less responsible and less motivated. Their view is that Paul’s knowledge saves them work and time.
 
"Why should I take the time to figure all this out on my own when my boss has already been there, done that?" one stated. "I take advantage of Paul’s expertise and seek him out whenever I’m unclear."
 
The five other team members-whom I judge to be more mature-told a different story. While they value Paul’s technical and subject-matter expertise, they don’t think of him as a true mentor. Their comments reveal a desire for something more from their boss than answers and solutions:
 
"I’d like to learn more about how Paul acquired his knowledge rather than simply hear his data points."
 
"I wish I had a stronger connection with Paul as a person. Mostly what I get is his ideas and suggestions. It would be helpful to hear about some of his struggles."
 
"I wouldn’t call Paul a good listener. He doesn’t seem curious about my life or my challenges."
 
"His solutions don’t always fit my daily problems. What I need is more dialogue; I would rather bat ideas around with Paul than take notes from him."

Leadership ‘governors’
Aware of it or not, every leader appoints "governors" to rule their daily decisions and interactions. The governors are called beliefs.
 
Paul’s belief, "Leadership is about sharing my knowledge," dictates his behavior. That belief produces restricted value for his team. Paul does not show up as arrogant or a bad boss. But his effectiveness is diminished by his limited belief system.
 
When a leader makes an assumption or holds a strong belief, it’s important to consider whether that belief is healthy, effective or reality-based. Consider these examples.
 
Assumption/belief: "A leader’s job is to motivate."

Reality: Motivation comes from within and cannot be instilled in people without their consent.
 
Assumption/belief: "The customer is always right."
 
Reality: Customers often want services or products that are not in their best interests.
 
Assumption/belief: "I treat my employees like family."
 
Reality: Employees are nothing like family members. (When you fire employees, they go away!)
 
Assumption/belief: "A can-do person never says no."
 
Reality: What separates a can-do person from a compulsive helper is the ability and willingness to say no when no makes sense.

Examining beliefs
Leaders like Paul could increase their effectiveness by scrutinizing their beliefs for potential inaccuracies or limitations. One big hurdle prevents such examination: For many leaders, their beliefs are under the table, hidden from investigation and protected from alteration.
 
Paul’s belief that his knowledge always merits high priority taints his leadership with a rigid-and, it turns out, flawed-assumption. Because his conviction is automatic and habitual, he doesn’t even think about how that belief strongly influences his leadership. That puts Paul at a big leadership disadvantage.
 
There are two ways out of this bind: Leaders who desire to examine their beliefs can do so on their own or with the help of a spouse, friend or objective coach.
 
The solo route might involve setting aside reflection or writing time to respond to five key questions:
 
1. What is my life purpose?
 
2. Do I believe leaders are born or made, or some combination of both?
 
3. What is the point of leadership?
 
4. What tells me that an individual has leadership potential?
 
5. What leadership behaviors help talented employees or managers get even better?
 
A leader’s thorough responses to these questions will point her in the direction of her own beliefs. Once those beliefs are articulated, she can take a closer look: Are these beliefs aligned with reality? To what extent are my beliefs outdated leftovers from old habits, or even childhood or young adult experiences? Are these beliefs working for me now?

Telling stories, asking questions
Not everyone can gain clarity through solitary reflection. If leaders are stumped by the five questions above, they might consider finding a sounding board who can break down the questions to stimulate clearer thinking. A good coach can pose skillful questions and extract stories that bring to the surface convictions, values, assumptions and beliefs.
 
It’s a given that all leaders hold beliefs that profoundly influence how they lead.
 
Can you, as a leader, put your beliefs into words?
 
Have you examined to what extent your beliefs are grounded in reality?
 
Have you invited a colleague, boss or coach to challenge or question your beliefs?
 
These are the questions that can help good leaders like Paul become even more effective.
 
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

2/3/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].

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