The Big Question: How can you become a better leader?

Jan 19, 2017

Is leadership an innate quality, or can you turn yourself into a better leader? Chicago Booth’s Harry L. Davis and George Wu, along with leadership consultant Nancy Tennant, discuss what professionals can do to improve their leadership skills, including collecting data, soliciting feedback, and performing experiments.

Is leadership best learned in the classroom or from experience?

Davis: Both. A lot of leadership is learned through day-to-day engagements in the workplace. Theoretical and domain knowledge has to be translated into action with and through other people, something we call “action skills.” Leadership is much more than simply thinking about taking actions.

Wu: There’s clearly lots of parts to leadership—strategic vision, and decision making, and those kinds of things—that are very different from interpersonal skills. All those things require both classroom experiences, and theories and frameworks, as well as practice through action.

Davis: At Booth, we’re trying to bring a more scientific approach to learning on the job. For example, we talk about learning how to do a better job of paying attention, observing. It’s also important to experiment—to try things, then collect data from interactions with people in the workplace, reflect on these data, and share what you learn with other people to get feedback.

What is the best way to try out leadership skills at work?

Tennant: I coach leaders to think about not 10 things they want to change, but one or two. Think about the experiment you’re trying to do. What’s the hypothesis? Then get people to give you feedback.

Wu: I love the idea of breaking complex tasks, such as mobilizing people or influencing an organization, into smaller tasks that people can take on at any given time. I teach negotiation, and on the last day I ask students how they’re going to continue to learn after the classroom experience. People tend to say they’re not going to have a chance to negotiate often. I ask, “Are you going to talk to people? Well, you’re practicing negotiation. You’re practicing listening, an important part of negotiation.” That’s about decomposing the big, difficult, hairy thing of doing all those tasks at once into smaller ones that you can do all the time.

Davis: One thing that makes it more complicated in the real world is that we’re doing these things in very different contexts. It’s not like repeating an experiment over and over again in a controlled laboratory environment. I may be attending a meeting in the morning to increase revenue, and in the afternoon I’m trying to reduce costs. The same skill may come out quite differently in different contexts. That’s why it’s so important to collect data. Sometimes we spend too much time thinking about doing something, and not enough time just doing it and saying, “What did I learn from it?” That iterative process is valuable.

Tennant: It’s really hard to sit back and reflect on what you learned. Companies are always trying to figure out how to add that last loop. It’s important to share best practices. A lot of companies like to beat themselves up and think a lot about what went wrong with the failures, but it’s important to analyze success as well.

Wu: We’re trying to teach people to think about small-scale, low-cost experiments. A $1 billion deal might not be the right place to try something new. But if I talk with Nancy all the time, why not try something new there, or maybe even telegraph to her that I’m trying to do something?

Tennant: I like for people, when they’re experimenting, to think about 30-day, 60-day, or 90-day windows. What can you really accomplish in 90 days? Pick one or two things, compress the time, and see what changes you can make.

How important is it to solicit feedback?

Wu: Feedback is important, because you simply cannot see some things that others can see easily. By asking others, you can try to collect data on yourself, but sometimes you’re just going to miss things that are glaring to other people. People have to collect data, but they also have to be wary about how they interpret them, and look for other ways of getting data that are outside their own vision.

Tennant: Getting feedback is hard. Sometimes you don’t want to hear it. It’s tough, especially when it’s negative, and you’re trying as hard as you can, and not getting anything back.

Davis: A lot of feedback is too aggregate, too removed from the context, too general. In the theater, directors give actors specific feedback about small parts of the script. They don’t rehearse a whole scene and then say, “Now sit down and let me give you 30 minutes of feedback.” Formal feedback mechanisms in organizations are often not particularly helpful for improving performance. That raises some interesting issues about feedback as a way of really improving day-to-day performance and learning, rather than a more bureaucratic evaluation. Sometimes, for example, people get feedback such as being told they’re too impatient. It may be that I should have been impatient because we’ve been talking about some strategy for a month, and it’s time to make a decision. It could have more to do with the person giving me the feedback. Was he close enough to the behavior that he was actually seeing, and was it recent enough such that he remembers it accurately?

What sort of experiments should executives try out?

Davis: Like exercise or healthy eating, you have to do something every day, and keep working at it. If I tend to talk a lot and I don’t listen that well, I may ask someone else to facilitate a meeting. Change the rules, switch things around. Rather than giving my opinion, I may listen to what others think and ask questions.

Wu: I think of the scientific method, having a hypothesis. One thing that’s difficult about a lot of interpersonal skills is that maybe the hypothesis is, “I’m unable to do that,” or, “I will feel really uncomfortable doing that.” That’s a hypothesis about capabilities. Another hypothesis is about effectiveness: “If I do this, it will be ineffective.” So, first, you have to be clear minded about capability and consequence. Then, try something different. Sometimes there are small things you can do that are a little different. Thirdly, you have to behave differently in different situations. When you’re in front of the room, people expect you to take command. That’s different from being in a group of peers. You have to develop the capabilities of being in lots of situations, and to figure out what’s right to do in each situation.

Davis: One thing that gets in the way of experimentation is that people tend to seek confirming evidence. If I think someone doesn’t like me, in a group situation, I’m not going to do anything that would disconfirm that. I would probably not say much, because my belief is they’re not going to listen to me. But it’s important to seek disconfirming evidence. That’s the way science evolves. In the laboratory courses that I’ve run in the past two or three years, where we’re collecting data, people are surprised when they seek disconfirming evidence that, in fact, the hypothesis and the beliefs they had were wrong. For example, someone thinks, “If I express my opinion, people are going to distance themselves from me.” That’s a habit that often needs to be broken. When they start to do it, people say, “That’s really smart. Say more.”

How important is it to have a mentor?

Davis: Mentors are part of the feedback process. They’re people who care, and have time to spend. People in the same company are helpful when it comes to sharing tacit and domain knowledge, as in when somebody says, “Let me tell you what happened 10 years ago that’s still part of the culture.” But sometimes it’s refreshing to talk to somebody in a completely different field. It’s important to open oneself up to asking for help. Some leaders say, “I shouldn’t ask for help. That means I’m weak.” That’s really not the case. At the same time, teachers and mentors can be helpful, but when all is said and done, leadership is a personal commitment to oneself and one’s uniqueness.

Tennant: Mentors and teachers can take you to a point, and then you have to perform. You have to try things.

Are technical skills or interpersonal skills more important for leadership?

Wu: Business is always going to be a combination of these. If you don’t understand your business and strategy, you’re unlikely to be successful. On the other hand, if you cannot get people mobilized behind what you’re trying to do, that’s not going to be effective either. The hard part is those things are often seen as two different ways of thinking, two different kinds of skills, and at times, you’ve got to do both. What makes it even harder is that good leaders have to make the assessment, “Is this mostly a vision thing, where what I have to do is understand what’s going on, or is it mostly a people thing? Or is it something where it’s people at the beginning, then the vision, or vice versa?” Being able to perform on both those dimensions is necessary.

Davis: Things get done not just because of the leader, but because the leader has created a culture and a sense of empowerment, a sense that lots of people in the organization take responsibility. That’s critical. The leader may get all the attention and the credit, but it’s to some extent the result of having inspired people, often not just intellectually but emotionally.