Improving your own leadership skills

Scouting aims to teach leadership to our young people through the methods we use, but it’s equally important that our adult volunteers take the opportunity to improve their own leadership skills.

Adult leader training courses provide the nuts & bolts of how to do the job, but few actually teach leadership in a more abstract sense. Wood Badge, notably, is one in which leadership and life skills are emphasized.

Fortunately, leadership can be taught, but it’s important to know just what leadership is.

  • Understand the difference between management and leadership. Harvard business professor and leadership consultant John Kotter says: Management is about systems, processes, checklists and formulas. It produces predictability and order. Leadership is about alignment, vision, and setting direction, and it produces change, often to a dramatic degree.
  • Understand that leadership is service. You are there to see that everyone else has what they need to succeed. Leaders provide others with resources and support.

Management without leadership almost never produces high performance. High performance often requires reinventing what your committee does (through leadership and change) with great management (using steps, milestones, and processes).

Five important skills

Great leaders possess five important skills:

  • Problem solving and decision making – Be able to see the scope of a problem and to make measured decisions for the good of all.
  • Planning – Develop the ability to organize an event, task, or activity given the objective and resources.
  • Communication – Communication goes with planning. You can brainstorm ideas and plan all you want, but unless your plans and concepts are communicated, you effectively don’t have a plan. Develop a way to share information among all those involved (often, the entire committee) and don’t keep things a secret unless there is a need to.
  • Delegation – You can’t do it all yourself. It’s very likely that someone else can do a particular thing better than you. Learn how to identify qualities and abilities in others, leverage these abilities, and give them ownership and responsibility. Your first thought should be “who is the best person to do this?” Your job is to see that job gets done, not to do it yourself.
  • Conducting meetings – This goes back to our first topic of problem solving. Work at it and practice at each meeting. Try to do something better each time. We’ve covered the topic of conducting meetings in previous articles.

Know how to ask questions

Scoutmasters mentor youth leaders not by direction and instruction but by question and reflection. It works the same with adults.

  • Questions open windows of enlightenment – It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question. Well-thought-out questions get people thinking and help to lead them to their own answers.
  • Questions overcome resistance – If you make a statement, people are likely to doubt or question it, but if you ask it as a question, people will lean in and offer their answers. Everyone wants to know that their answers matter.
  • Questions allow others to own their own conclusions. If I answer a question, I own the answer, but if I ask you a question and you arrive at the answer yourself, it’s yours!

Even if you know the answer, ask! In doing so, two things could happen: You verify your own knowledge, or you could arrive at a different answer. The best questions are ones you think you have already answered.

You can learn a lot about others by the questions they ask. Voltaire said Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers. If they ask questions, they want to participate and understand. If they don’t ask questions, one can conclude they may be self-absorbed, uninterested or just not paying attention. Engage others by asking questions.

Ignorance can be powerful too

Ignorance leads to stupidity, but by embracing ignorance, you can protect yourself from stupidity. This may seem illogical, but consider that careless mistakes and poor decisions (stupidity) are most likely made by the ignorant (uninformed).  If you know you are ignorant, you can take corrective action before it turns into stupidity.

Anger can be one symptom of ignorance. Many people get mad because they don’t understand the total picture and base their misunderstanding on missing, incorrect or partial information. To prevent ignorance from taking its toll on your leadership success:

  • First, acknowledge you are ignorant when it’s appropriate. It’s important to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Embrace your ignorance by withholding judgment. Don’t leap to conclusions over information you may not have or don’t understand.
  • Finally, ask the best questions. It comes back to using the Socratic method of discovery, either in asking others questions or asking them of yourself.

My final thoughts on this topic will cover helping – both giving and getting – getting yourself unstuck, and improving information flow in your organization.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

This post first appeared on Bobwhite Blather.
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