By Paul Harkin, current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA Program.
Wanting to improve our skills in leadership and management can feel overwhelming at times. Where do we start? When we reflect on our strengths and areas for development, we often see a shopping list of areas that we could improve on, many interconnected. Then there are the thousands of books and articles, each with solutions and contributions. Many of them valid, and many of them speaking to the myriad of areas that you want to focus on. So where do we start? With further procrastination?
These were the matters plaguing my mind as I considered returning to a formal learning environment and began looking at MBAs. They were still there when I started preparing for my first unit – Leadership Practice and Development with Mike Jenner. There was so much that was useful in what I was reading prior to my first class that I again became overwhelmed by the choice of things I could work on. Conveniently, this assault of choice could let me sit in inertia once again.
Until, that is, I realized that where I started didn’t really matter. There may be plenty who will argue that where you start matters a great deal, but to us procrastinators getting started is the key. One of the most powerful things I have been opened to in Leadership Practice and Development is that the ability to develop skill is in many ways a muscle that needs exercise. It’s not just the skill that needs practice, it’s our ability to reflect on and develop that skill that in itself is worth practicing.
As Richard Barbieri points out, there isn’t some magical, fixed internal being waiting to be unwrapped through a process of self-discovery. We are capable of evolving and growing in response to the effort we put in. Management and leadership expertise is not some innate ability that just needs discovering or honing – it involves learning, and repetition, and a lot of hard work until you have mastered the skills you require. The “skill-development-as-a-muscle-to-be-exercised” concept was an important revelation for me as it freed me up from knowing where to start – just start!
Key to this is our mindset. Carol Dweck’s work on how fixed and growth mindsets shape our ability to grow and develop is well known. An ability to view ourselves and our behaviour in the moment, as fluid and open to change, as opposed to being tethered to fixed expertise with limited opportunities for change, allows us to positively engage in self improvement. This allows us to view our current practice as something that can be analysed and improved upon. It frees us up to engage with what is current for us, and not have to place it in a bigger plan of self-discovery. And it encourages us to engage positively with feedback from others. Feedback that can support our understanding of how we land for, or are experienced by others is vital data in understanding where we want to focus our learning and how we are progressing.
Martin Luther King Jnr once said “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”. In improving who we are as leaders and managers, we may not always see the bigger picture of our development. We may regularly avoid things as a response to the enormity of choice and data. However, we are capable of change and of growth, by just practicing change and growth. And often, you won’t see the top of the staircase. And in those cases, you might need to just take the first step anyway.