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"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It's precisely that simple, and it's also that difficult."

Like most good books on leadership, this one makes it clear that developing the skills of a leader is very much about self-development. A leader must know himself and the climate in which he leads. That climate includes circumstances, other people, policies, and a host of other factors. To become a leader, we must understand the rules of the game AND know how to play it. Read this summary of On Becoming a Better Leader to find out what these rules and actions entail.


Mastering the context

All situations that require leadership have a specific context that impacts decisions. Many leaders allow the situation itself to have too much influence on their decisions. To lead effectively, a leader must make decisions based on the big picture and not on current circumstances.

Bennis uses the story of Norman Lear, a leader in television production, to make his point. Lear created shows that went against the norm of sitcoms in the 60's. He understood the context and saw an opportunity to do something different instead of staying with the status quo. Lear cites four steps for his process of mastering the context.

  • Become self-expressive
  • Listen to the inner voice
  • Learn from the right mentors
  • Give one's self over to a guiding vision

By having faith in his own vision and confidence in his ideas, Lear created cutting-edge sitcoms that featured topics and situations that broke new ground.

Understanding the basics

There are some basic ingredients for becoming a leader. These are not traits that leaders are born with, but skills that are developed through years of experience and learning. These are the must-haves for effective leaders:

  • A guiding vision
  • Passion
  • Self-knowledge
  • Candor
  • Maturity
  • Trust
  • Curiosity
  • Daring

Knowing yourself

We are our own best teachers if we accept the responsibility of educating ourselves. Bennis explains that we are capable of learning just about anything and that learning involves reflecting on our own experiences. A leader who knows his strengths and limitations has the confidence to become a leader.

Knowing the world

Knowing how the world we live in affects our decisions is critical. We learn about the world through our experiences and our mistakes. We learn about the world from mentors, books, and formal education. But it's not just the knowledge we accumulate that helps us; it's the commitment to learning for the sake of learning that helps us understand a world that keeps changing.

Operating on instinct

At a certain point, leaders must learn to trust their intuition. Whether we call it the "inner voice" or "just a gut feeling," that instinct is the accumulation of knowledge and experience and is worth listening to.

Deploying yourself: strike hard, try everything

Leadership skills can't grow stronger unless we put them to the test over and over. Every leader fails. The best leaders learn to use failure as a chance to try a new approach. The point is to accept failure as part of the process and learn to face the situations we fear by learning new skills.

Moving through the chaos

The true test of a leader is knowing how to lead when everything is falling apart. Leading in chaotic situations requires a leader that is willing to accept change as inevitable. Managing that change requires adaptability, flexibility, and patience, all while keeping the focus on the overall vision.

Getting people on your side

The only way to get people to follow is to gain their trust. Bennis outlines four keys for developing that trust:

  • Constancy - Leaders stay on course and lead with consistency.
  • Congruity - Leaders walk the talk. They lead by example.
  • Reliability - Leaders are dependable and ready to lead in any situation.
  • Integrity - Leaders remain committed to their vision and are always true to their word.

Organizations can help or hinder

To become a leader, the constraints of the organization must not stop a leader from leading. Whether it's bureaucratic red tape from above, or lack of interest or commitment from below, leaders stay the course. They continue to lead with the skills they have learned, believing in their effectiveness.

Forging the future

Leaders do much more than lead others. They know how to innovate to keep their organization competitive. They promote effective communication at all levels and create strategic alliances. Leaders know how to tie it all together and lead their followers, and their organization, into a brighter future.