The need to develop your leadership skills doesn’t end once the search committee chooses you to be the chief executive officer (CEO) of an organization. Nor is leadership development only for CEOs. Leaders at all levels of an organization should continually be working to strengthen and stretch their knowledge base, self-awareness, and collaboration skills.

Judy Sorum Brown explored this strengthening and stretching process during a recent interview with LeadingAge. 

Brown is a member of the design team and a lead facilitator for the LeadingAge Leadership Academy. She teaches leadership for the Public Good in the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. 

LeadingAge: How does a leader gauge his or her ability to lead?  

JB: There are a number of important questions that can help you explore whether you are getting better at leadership. Ask yourself:    

  1. To what extent am I able to move through uncertainty and ambiguity with steadiness and grace?
  2. To what extent am I genuinely welcoming of a range of perspectives, including those that disagree with my own?
  3. To what extent am I clear about my own core values and those of the organization?
  4. To what extent do I know my own trip wires—those life encounters that spur an involuntary, and frequently negative, response from me?   
  5. To what extent am I able to ask for help?

LeadingAge: What if a leader can’t respond positively to these questions?

JB: That’s a good signal that there is strengthening and stretching needed. You probably need to get yourself a good guide so you can get better.

Many organizations are delighted to invest in coaching for people in leadership roles. They do this because they care about their leaders and about their organizations. They know it’s a lot more expensive to replace a leader than to coach a leader.    

LeadingAge: Is the CEO an organization’s only leader?

JB: No. Leadership is a practice, not a title. It is a way of moving things forward as best you can from where you are. It involves asking really good questions about the organization and where it needs to go. You can ask these questions from anywhere in the organization as long as the organization’s culture encourages that.

LeadingAge: What does good leadership have to do with innovation and creativity?

JB: I see innovation as leadership and creativity coming together. That’s why it is so important for leaders to develop their own personal creativity.

I’m developing my creativity through poetry. Writing poetry leaves me open to watching ideas emerge. It makes me sensitive to the particular words that people choose. It makes me more comfortable with possibilities. It helps me respect creativity in other people. I handle tough surprises more effectively.

Unfortunately, busy leaders often set aside the creative pursuits that once intrigued them. They don’t have time to go to concerts anymore. They no longer have time to sit at the piano. This dulls their ability to be curious, creative and innovative. 

LeadingAge: Should innovation be the goal of all good leaders?

JB: Developing transformational leaders is a central goal of the LeadingAge Leadership Academy. The idea here is that the leader transforms an organization by stepping up its energy to a higher level of vitality.

Think of transformation as involving both change and conservation.

Innovative change helps the organization move forward while engendering a certain mindset in the people who work there. The leader’s goal should be to create a culture in which every team member feels empowered to find better ways of doing things or to raise issues so the organization can create a system for doing things in a better way.

We also need a culture that appreciates what we have. There may be times when an organization needs less fixing and more appreciation of what is right.

We don’t want to innovate for innovation’s sake. Good leaders help us figure out what to conserve and where to innovate. That is a really important judgment call.  

LeadingAge: How do leaders increase the organization’s capacity for transformation?

JB: As leaders, we need to create within ourselves an openness to the new and the unexpected. We need practices that help us do that. If we share those practices with our team members, they will develop their own creativity. Then, together, we can create an organizational culture of greater openness, greater possibility, and greater faith in our collective ability to work through change.    

LeadingAge: What’s the first best step for an individual who wants to be a better leader?

JB: The first step is always to develop reflective practices in that space between us and the actions we take. We need that space to evaluate a past action or consider a future action. That space is where we learn and where we practice being a good leader. An old rule rules: know thyself.

Some people practice reflection by having an open conversation about their gifts and shortcomings with a confidant or mentor. Other people engage a leadership coach. Some people engage in a more personal assessment.  

LeadingAge: What if the leader doesn’t have time to reflect?

JB: No one does. Like anything else that’s important, we have to carve out the time. If we don’t, we become out of touch with our own reactions, thoughts and feelings. Then we become similarly out of touch with the people around us.

Leaders who do not take time for reflection don’t have access to their own intuition and wisdom when they have to make quick decisions. So they frequently make unwise decisions.

Good leaders regularly step away from the rat race. I know this is counterintuitive. It takes discipline to take time out when every fiber of your being is telling you to work harder and work your people harder.

LeadingAge: Can good leadership affect the people that an organization serves?

JB: You bet. How we treat our team members determines how they treat the people we serve. If we create the soil in which creativity, innovation, appreciation and respect can flourish, these gifts will flower for everyone.