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Why great leadership skills are not learned overnight

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One thing that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has taught us is that leaders aren’t superheroes. Superheroes transform instantly (in telephone boxes or similar) and they use their various superpowers to solve various societal and personal issues. Useful as that is, leaders in the real world must work hard to tackle the things they face in the workplace.

True leaders possess skills, not superpowers. These essential leadership skills such as communication, emotional intelligence and decisiveness are acquired and honed over time. They don’t magically appear in telephone boxes or indeed, after a classroom-based short course. Leadership skills – often referred to as ‘soft’ skills – are actually not even remotely soft. They are hard – hard to acquire, hard to maintain and hard to demonstrate. They invariably require a long and robust journey of development.

I’m always astonished by the myriad of ‘quick-fix’ programs that promise to transform leaders after just a few days inside a classroom. The fact is, leadership is a continuing journey of practical development and learning – one that blends a number of different methods. Put simply, a good leader won’t be created merely by being sent on a two-day course.

The birth of a myth

The theory that forming new habits takes just 21 days is a misinterpretation based on the 1960 book Psycho Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. The plastic surgeon famously observed that it took his patients a minimum of 21 days to get used to any physical changes to their body, such as their post-operative appearance in the mirror, or the feeling of a lost limb. The finding is commonly mis-applied to cognitive change, such as making or breaking psychological habits.

More recent research shows that on average, it takes at least 66 days to form a habit or change an existing one. Sadly, that realisation came too late, and many courses and self-help formulas are now based on the misunderstood 21-day theory.
In reality, leadership skills development is about much more than racing to form new habits or making an instant transformation.

Reflection, not repetition

Research by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine sheds some light on the best way to learn. It reveals that instead of repetition, a process called reconsolidation – recalling existing knowledge and adapting it to new experiences – significantly improves the way participants learn specific skills.

All leaders possess a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience; their learning isn’t about starting from zero. Which means, creating great leaders takes more than a repetitive bombardment of information; it requires continuous professional development.

Here are three elements of continuous development that help create great leaders:

Mentoring


Being a CEO can be a lonely job. That’s why finding a mentor is essential. Having a knowledgeable sounding board – someone to answer questions, listen and give advice from a position of experience – is something all leaders need.


Self-awareness


The point of self-awareness is to understand where best to direct your efforts to improve. The ability to take on feedback – and crucially, act on it – is what differentiates great leaders from good ones.

Reflection


Great leaders look back on what they’ve done and think about how they could do it better. Only when you get into this habit can real improvement happen. In fact, this forms a large part of the process of becoming a Chartered Manager, the highest status that can be achieved by a manager or leader globally.

The bottom line is, short courses might help you learn about one leadership skill, but great leaders are made over time.

Read next: This is the single most important leadership trait today

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