Develop your leadership skills by practicing in a low-risk environment

Most leadership trainings are about teaching ideas, sharing best practices, and increasing knowledge. But successful people rarely become better leaders because they know more.

They become better leaders because they follow through on what they know. That follow-through requires a strong “emotional courage” — willingness to feel the feelings that come when we take risks and break old patterns. That courage is essential in managing people effectively to build bridges, raise and address hard issues, and handle opposition. 

But How do you get emotional courage? 

You don’t learn it by listening to a lecture. The best way is to practice in situations where the perceived risk is much higher than the actual risk.

Leadership is hard in a very practical way. It’s about managing politics skillfully and effectively to achieve what’s most important; building bridges between people, departments, and silos; raising hard-to-talk-about issues in a way that others agree to address them; acting courageously in risky situations; showing up in critical leadership moments with confidence; connecting with people in a way that inspires their commitment, responding productively to opposition without losing your focus; skillfully handling people who push back; and building trusted relationships, even with difficult people or people you don’t like.

Growing emotional courage is the key to being able to take any of these risks. So, how do you grow those skills?

Only listening to a lecture doesn’t do it. Even role plays aren’t so useful because they aren’t “real” enough — they might teach us the skills, but they don’t increase our bravery enough to use them in clutch situations. 

And that’s what matters.

On the other hand, taking risks in “real life,” before you’re ready, comes with potential consequences. Practicing skillful confrontation while you’re still developing your skill, could damage relationships with potentially dire repercussions in your work.

The solution? Practice in situations where the perceived risk is much higher than the actual risk. Think of something you want to get better at: giving feedback, listening, being succinct and direct, having hard conversations — anything you think will make you a better leader.

Now, try that skill in a low-risk situation. For example, let’s say there’s a mistake on your mobile phone bill. Call the customer service rep and practice being clear, succinct, and direct. You may be amazed at how difficult it is to follow through. 

Go slowly and feel all the feelings that comes up. Those are the feelings you will feel in higher risk situations because that’s what risk feels like. So follow through and feel the risk, knowing that the actual consequences of failure are quite low.

That’s how we expand our freedom to act on what’s most important to us.

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