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Leadersmithing: A craft approach to leadership

Leadership is a craft, to be honed over a lifetime. Here's how leaders can fully prepare for the challenges they will face

If leadership is as straightforward as most books make it sound why do so many leaders feel like imposters? Often they have suddenly been promoted in unexpected circumstances, or been parachuted in to transform a complex situation. When everyone is looking at them expectantly they are just desperately hoping they don't get found out. They may have a pretty good vision or plan but their daily reality is messiness and acute uncertainty, with a lot of improvising on the job. So are there more effective ways people can prepare for leadership (rather than waiting to be mugged by fate)?

In many trades and professions mastery of the subject can take a lifetime; leadership is no different. It is a craft, so a better way to describe it is leadersmithing, because a craft approach can breathe life into the development of leaders. In my new book Leadersmithing I explain how leaders really learn, can become more job-ready, and prepared for the challenges they will face.

The book identifies the muscle memory you need to lead and then offers a programme of 52 exercises for leaders to practise, organised into four suits like a pack of cards, looking at different leadership skills and competencies. I will be writing a series of four articles for HR magazine over the coming month, presenting each suit and its lessons for HR professionals.

Part one: Diamonds

My Diamonds are about sharpness. Your sharpness is dependent on how dextrous you are with yourself as a resource. How ready are you to deploy yourself in the full range of leadership situations?

Many of my Diamonds draw on insights from emotional intelligence. Most modern leadership programmes embed this thinking, although formal appraisal processes often fall short. We know, however, that most leadership is learned on the job through copying the leaders close by. No amount of expensive offsite development can replace the ongoing apprenticeship of aspiring leaders. But how much time do hard-pressed line managers really have to invest in the daily nurturing of individuals’ strengths, and are they thoroughly incentivised to do so?

As an HR director you are not only responsible for your organisation’s overall approach to leadership development, you also have that responsibility for your team and you probably mentor a number of leaders in your field. Perhaps you could work with them on some key craft skills for focused practise and review?

In total I have identified 13 Diamonds; a whole quarter’s worth of weekly disciplines. For instance, my Ace of Diamonds is about strengths:

Honing your strengths is a better strategy for enhancing your brand than correcting your weaknesses. List your strengths, from 360s, appraisals, or references. Rank them in order of competence. Explain your ranking. Thinking about negative feedback you have had in the past; are there times when you tend to over-use any of your strengths? What triggers over-use? Can you adjust your volume button on these ones? Next, confront your weaknesses and forgive yourself for them. What are your strategies for getting help? What kind of role would make the best use of your natural abilities? And who might pay you to do what you really love?

Even within the constraints of a pressured job there is normally leeway to allow for some exercise of strengths, and the Gallup 12 findings suggest it is a vital component of employee engagement. But a foresighted leader has a plan to compensate for weaknesses too, so a good card to accompany the Strengths card is my Three of Diamonds – 'missing person':

Imagine you had a job-share colleague who was off today but whose presence completes you. Draw this missing person as specifically as you can. Would they have big ears for listening? Octopus tentacles for multi-tasking? Extra eyes to spot things? A big heart? Specifically, what is it about them that complements your gifts and skills? How do they add to them, or compensate for your weaknesses? Developing this profile will help you identify your development needs. But, more importantly, it tells you who else you need to have in your team.

This article is the first in a four-part series based on the book Leadersmithing by Eve Poole. Poole is a leadership speaker, teacher and consultant.