David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
After working as chair of a small committee in my department for more than a year, my boss told me I must step down because the committee finds my leadership “chaotic.” I am concerned that this is indicative of my inability to lead. I chaired the committee years back and was relieved of command without a full explanation, and I have served on several committees without being asked to chair. My question is two-fold. First, can leadership be learned or is it a trait people are born with? Second, what should I do to regain the trust of my department—I’d like to be a leader.
Lacking Leadership Skills
Good for you for turning this unfortunate situation into an opportunity for personal development. Too many people in your shoes become defensive, angry, or depressed.
Is leadership a trait? No! You don’t have to change your genes or revisit your early upbringing. Rather, leadership is a bundle of skills, and now is the perfect time for you to master them.
Begin with a skill scan. Consider the different skills that are required to lead committees, and determine where to begin. You already have some clues. Your boss says the committee finds your leadership “chaotic.” Learn more about what that means. Find someone who will share tough truths with you, and get concrete examples of when your behavior caused others to draw that conclusion.
Chances are you need to build your skills in one or two of the competencies involved in leading a committee. Here are the areas I’d consider:
Project Management Skills: Committees are formed to accomplish objectives. The committee leader is expected to manage the overall process of achieving these objectives. Up front, you work with the committee’s stakeholders to define the project. Then, during the project, you work with team members to keep the project on time, on spec, and on budget. Maybe “chaotic” means you aren’t doing enough between meetings to keep the project on course.
Meeting Management Skills: The committee leader usually leads the committee’s meetings. Meeting leaders make sure the right people are at the meeting, they come prepared, and they make sure the meeting starts and ends on time, the agenda is clear, and decisions and next steps are documented. Maybe “chaotic” means people find the meetings confusing or unhelpful.
Dialogue Skills: The committee leader is expected to foster open dialogue and to help resolve disagreements. Do your committees get bogged down in disputes? Do you see silence and violence instead of honest and frank discussion? Maybe “chaotic” means people see dithering, debate, and denial where they want dialogue.
Political Skills: The committee leader is expected to maintain strong communication links to the customers and stakeholders who are sponsoring the committee. The leader keeps everyone updated on progress and changing needs. Maybe “chaotic” means people feel blindsided by changes that come from outside the committee.
Build the skills, using deliberate practice: Listen to others’ specific feedback. Select the area where you are weakest, and then build your skills. Read books and articles, or take a workshop. Even better, find a colleague who is a good leader and ask for coaching.
Then begin your deliberate practice. Volunteer for an assignment that requires you to use your new skills, but don’t practice at work. Find a community or volunteer assignment where you can build your skills.
A warning: Maybe your boss isn’t being completely direct with you. Maybe his or her real desire is to have you spend less time working on committees and more time working on another assignment. Ask yourself whether leading a committee is the best way for you to contribute. If it isn’t, then consider focusing on an area that makes you more valuable.
Finally, if a leadership opportunity presents itself in the near future, don’t pursue it. New skills require an investment of time. So does regaining trust. Don’t rush back into a committee chair position until you and your organization are ready.