Career : Aspiring Leaders Need to Build Their Skills

Albert VicereAlbert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe. He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

View his website by visiting www.vicere.com or e-mail him on a.vicere@vicere.com


There is more to becoming an effective leader than just getting a promotion. To be successful, aspiring leaders need to develop skills, gain experiences, and develop a leadership point of view. But just how do they do that ? 

Aspiring leaders first must understand the difference between being an individual contributor and a leader. "In a nutshell, leadership is about relationships," says Susan Kuznik, associate professor of business administration at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio where she directs a program devoted to developing emerging leaders.

The program, Kuznik notes, started as a result of a conversation with a CEO who said “We hire people for their technical skills and fire them for their lack of interpersonal skills." Kuznik and her colleagues worked with the CEO’s company to build a year long program for aspiring leaders focused on self awareness, interpersonal skill development, communications, team dynamics, and strategic thinking.

Jeffrey E. Nelson, Chair in Leadership Studies at Berea College in Kentucky, believes that training in interpersonal awareness and relationship skills helps form the foundation for credibility in a leadership role. He defines credibility as “becoming a person with whom others want to work and collaborate”. Aspiring leaders build this kind of credibility in two simple ways says Nelson, “by working hard to demonstrate job-skill competence and by establishing positive relationships with others in their organization".

To do that, aspiring leaders need to accept responsibility and deliver on expectations. They need to hone their skills in communication and listening. And they need to start coaching and developing others around them. 

Do they need a coach of their own ? “Mentors and role models are terrific, but are not enough," says Kuznik. They provide guidance, wisdom and feedback, but there’s nothing like hands-on experience to drive the development of leadership capability. 

Nelson notes that a combination of experience and feedback from bosses, mentors and colleagues, “gives the aspiring leader key insights into their leadership styles and skills, increasing their self-awareness and effectiveness".

But experts seem to agree that the big question aspiring leaders need to address is whether they have a new experience 20 times in their career, or whether they have the ability to incorporate the lessons from those 20 different experiences into a leadership philosophy that helps them remain agile and flexible in our rapidly changing times.

According to Victoria Guthrie of the Center for Creative Leadership, there are a variety of challenges that contribute to developing effective leadership skills. Those challenges fall into four buckets: challenging job assignments such as fix it's, start ups; shifting from line to staff or vice versa; learning from others—generally bosses, both good and bad; coping with mistakes and enduring hardships; and coursework. 

“The experiences are most critical”, says Guthrie. "Coursework provides a foundation, but the lessons really don’t stick until a leader has had a chance to put those lessons to work real time”.

Leadership development guru Marshall Goldsmith agrees, "I believe it is important for aspiring leaders to experience a variety of job assignments, projects and development processes. They need to remain open to learning from their experiences and be willing to go against their grain–that which is comfortable, secure, and certain of success, and try new and different developmental challenges".

Guthrie recommends that all leaders establish an “after action review” process, similar to what the military uses to enhance continued learning, as they move through various experiences. "Both success and failures can teach a great deal especially when one moves beyond asking what questions to how questions such as how it came to be, how it could be different, or better" says Guthrie.

Feedback from mentors and coaches can help with the after action review process as well. But at the end of the day, it comes down to a basic formula. To achieve success, aspiring leaders need to :-

  • Be good at whatever they do
  • Know themselves—work from their strengths, work on their limitations
  • Seek out challenging experiences and stay open to the lessons of those experiences
  • Listen to coaches, mentors and colleagues and incorporate their feedback into their learning and development process
  • Develop a leadership philosophy—use the lessons of their experiences to develop the ability to remain flexible, agile and responsive in a constantly changing world.

© Copyright Albert Vicere 2004

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