Leadership is a craft. So why do so few see it that way?
By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.
The 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi tells the story of an 85-year-old sushi chef and his small restaurant in a Tokyo subway station—the only sushi restaurant in the world to be awarded a three-star Michelin Guide rating. Jiro, the sushi chef, has been making sushi for most of his life, but still, well into old age, he strives for perfection.
I recommend you watch this film yourself (it’s now available on DVD). Better yet: watch it with a group of leaders! As you will see in this film, Jiro is a professional in the truest sense. I challenge you, upon watching the film and seeing how passionate Jiro is about sushi, to imagine what it would be like if the leaders in your organization were as passionate about leadership.
Of course, people who take their craft seriously—people who leaders can learn from—aren’t found only in movies.
There is a local jewelry repair kiosk in the mall near where I live. My family has been customers there for over a decade, and I have always respected the owner’s passion for what he does. He has told me he considers his work a real craft, and that he has invested 18 years in constantly trying to improve.
For the past three decades I have spent about 20 percent of my time traveling. When on an airplane, I always make an effort to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me. What we talk about always tends to follow the same course. We exchange names, tell where we are from, and, of course, explain what we do. I have met many interesting people this way, including the COO of McDonald’s, the prime minister of agriculture for Thailand, and Patch Adams, the physician who sought to humanize medicine and was portrayed by Robin Williams in a 1998 theatrical film about him.
I have met engineers, pilots, sales managers, marketers, teachers, and bankers. But I cannot recall one single person—not one—who has ever told me that he or she was a leader.
Why is this? I believe it’s because no one really sees leadership as a profession. In spite of the fact that there are some 10 million-plus leaders in the U.S. alone, few identify themselves as leadership professionals. This is, in many respects, incredible.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons leadership quality is considered by many to be mediocre, at best. Dozens of survey reports continue to decry the sad state of leadership. DDI’s own Global Leadership Forecast 2011 reported that only about 38 percent of leaders rate their organization’s leadership quality as high.
So, how can we begin to change the way we think about leadership? I believe it boils down to these four things:
- Look at leadership as a chosen specialty. One of the defining traits of professionalism is specialization—choosing to devote tremendous time and effort to attaining a high level of proficiency in a single field, such as music, surgery, or law. As a result, professionals will describe their profession not only in terms of what they do, but also in terms of what they have devoted their time and effort to master.
The same should be true for leaders. Leadership is a craft that is perfected over time through the focused dedication of time, attention, and self-awareness. When you become a leader, whatever your level or industry, it becomes your profession and you have an obligation to invest the time and effort to become the best leader you can be. Most leaders simply do not look at it this way, however. It’s time for that perception to change!
- Use standards. Professions usually have standards for performance, knowledge, and skills. Some require degrees, certifications, accreditations, and exams. Due to the evolving nature of professional standards in some fields, continuing education is also required. For example, in the human resources profession, both the American Society for Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Managers have established standards and certification processes. But if you do a Google search on “general leadership standards” you will come up with very little (my search only generated about 1,700 results).
There is no one examining body for leadership and no continuing education credits are required. Yet, each year countless job analyses, academic studies, and books attempt to distill the essence of good leadership. While the outputs of these efforts vary in form, there tends to be little variance in the skills, behaviors, and personality components identified as being essential to extraordinary leadership.
In their own way, these components amount to a set of commonly accepted leadership standards. And while we are unlikely to see a leadership standards board with national or global certification processes (though that isn’t a bad idea), there are a handful of valid tests and assessments that can accurately predict leadership performance. Still, only one in three organizations uses these tools.
- Pursue your passion. Just because you are part of a profession doesn’t mean you are a professional. Many people find themselves in professions from which they derive little if any satisfaction. On the other hand, most professionals are highly motivated to do what they do and do it well. I would argue that many leaders consider what they are doing—leadership—a “job” as opposed to a lifelong passion.
On the other hand, extraordinary leaders (the true professionals) love being in leadership for the right reasons: helping people grow, mobilizing the organization in a new direction, and building engaged and high performing teams. Motivations such as these should be what really matter to leaders.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. Much like Jiro the sushi chef, the late Pablo Casals, the great cellist, practiced into his eighties. When asked why, he said, “I can always get better.” The same attitude should apply to leadership. Doug Conant, the highly respected former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, put it this way: “To me, leadership is my craft and I have to work at it, and I’ve got to have the same continuous improvement mindset about my job that I challenge my associates to have about theirs.”
True professionals like Conant are never complacent. Hours of practice are what make them stand out—and what keeps them on top of their game. Leadership skills can be learned and they can and should be practiced. When leaders commit to continuous improvement in their craft, there’s no limit to how good and how effective they can become.
The time is at hand for us to start viewing leadership as the honorable profession that it is. If you are leader, commit yourself to your profession, and strive to develop the right leadership skills, especially the Interaction Essentials required for the successful conversations that are the foundation of leadership effectiveness.
Work hard to improve, and be proud of the important work that you do. After all, your ability to be a great leader really matters to your organization. Make the most of the opportunity.
Rich Wellins, Ph.D. is senior vice president at DDI.
To download The Essential Guide to Interaction Essentials and learn more about DDI’s Interaction Management®: Exceptional Leaders (IM: ExLSM) series, visit www.ddiworld.com/leadershiptoday.