There are many businesses across the world with great vision and operational capability. Yet, a lot of them fail. Why? These organizations lack good leaders.
Great leaders give their companies a competitive edge and help them capitalize on the opportunities that the future presents. In the current business environment, leaders have a lot of responsibilities. They must not only create the vision but must also ensure to steer the organization in the right direction. Leaders must also organize operations so that the vision is attainable profitably while creating a motivated workforce.
Businesses today understand the importance of good leadership, which is why they invest heavily in developing good leaders. Leadership development is a billion-dollar industry with the USA alone spending nearly $166 billion every year. But what does it take to make a great leader? Do you need any special qualifications to make you a great leader? Or do you need experience? Can a training program transform an ordinary person into a great leader?
There are many people in leadership positions with degrees and certifications but no real-world practical experience. Can your credentials alone teach you to build connections and rapport with real people? Is experience more important or credentials? We will discuss the same in this white paper.
Are credentials even important?
Who doesn’t know Bill Gates? He majored in pre-law at the prestigious Harvard University, spending a majority of his time in the computer lab and taking math classes. However, he dropped out of college in 1975 and went on to become the founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world. Bill Gates did not have any credentials- no degree or diploma. Yet, he founded one of the largest organizations in the world.
Bill Gates is not an isolated case. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attended Reed College in Portland but dropped out only after one semester. He worked at Atari as a video game designer but left the job to backpack through India. Jobs founded Apple after coming back from India in their family garage. And as they say, the rest is history.
Richard Branson is a British business tycoon and the founder of the Virgin Group. Forget credentials, Branson always had a poor academic record because he had dyslexia. He did not attend college because his entrepreneurial ways started when he was just 16. He published a magazine called “Student” at 16 and went on to start the Virgin Group when he was about 19.
All these are big names in the world, and they have achieved success without any credentials. This brings us to the big question, “Are credentials even necessary?”
If you need to work in a field like education, medicine, or law, you need certain qualifications and a license to practice. But, what about leadership? What are the qualifications for leadership?
Before we discuss the relationship between credentials and leadership, let us understand why credentials are necessary.
Credentials boost credibility
You may know of a lot of people who started at the ground level and then worked their way to the top. For many, it could mean several years of hard work before getting to the top. However, credentials are like the ladder in a snakes and ladders board game. It makes your climb to the top easier.
Say, there are two graduates, one with an MBA in Organizational Leadership and one without. Which of them do you think will attract more attention for a leadership position? It may be possible to tell whether a person has leadership skills or not when you have known them for some time. However, it is not as easy when you are in the hiring process. That is where you look for credentials.
Credentials may not determine success. But they can ensure that you start your career closer to the boardroom rather than the mail room. The reason for this is that credentials convey credibility. When you do not have any measurable experience, having the right credentials can help you get your foot in the door.
However, when it comes to leadership, many people in leadership positions hide behind their degrees and never optimize their leadership abilities. Such people do not make good leaders despite being in leadership positions. Credentials can boost your credibility, but it is ultimately your leadership skills that will make you a great leader.
Credentials help in career transitions
A few decades ago, people were not into job-hopping or changing careers. The majority of people would get into a job, work for 30 or 40 years and then retire. Along the way, they may or may not get a few promotions that could alter their job role. However, that’s not the case anymore.
Switching careers has become the norm in modern times and people do not hesitate to take advantage of career change opportunities. In fact, more than 52% of Americans are planning a career change this year. Also, people no longer work for the same employer for decades. As per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average length of time that people spend with one employer is around 4.6 years. If you are looking for a career change, your credentials could get a recruiter interested in your resume.
People within the age group of 25 to 34 are more willing to learn new skills that can help them in their career transition. For others, financial stability and mid-career stagnation are the major reasons why people opt for a career change. However, the problem with credentials is that they tend to become irrelevant at some point in your life. Your Bachelor’s or Master’s degree may not make you a suitable candidate for all industries. So, what do people do? Earn new credentials.
Enhance job prospects
The biggest reason credentials are important is that they enhance your job prospects. A degree or a diploma increases your chances of landing a job. Similarly, an executive certification could also increase your chances of getting promoted and moving on to a higher position.
Of course, there is no certificate in the world that could make up for the lack of expertise. However, highlighting an advanced degree on your resume could make recruiters take notice of your resume. Your credentials show that you have worked hard on yourself and that you are capable of your own development. Many employers interpret this as an ability to lead others towards success.
Leaders are born, not made!
There are countless examples of successful leaders who have made it big even without credentials. But, how are these leaders made? Leaders are not created overnight. It takes years and years of professional and personal experiences to create a good leader. Most of the learning comes from on-the-job experiences.
The most valuable experiences are the ones that challenge your abilities, stretch your skills, and get you out of your comfort zone. It is only in challenging situations that your leadership capabilities come to the fore. Being in your comfort zone is easy, but making changes requires intentional effort.
Different people have different experiences, and all experiences teach you different things. The more diverse the experience, the better you get at handling different situations. Also, your experience goes way beyond your resume. It is not limited to the number of companies that you have worked for or the number of years you have spent on the job. Early life experiences, family hardships, and many other non-work experiences hone and strengthen your leadership skills.
Experiences that shape leaders
You may know of many successful leaders. Do you think all of them would have had similar experiences that lay down the foundation of their success? Different leaders have different stories and lessons that they used to pave their way to success. Two people in the same situation could view the situation differently, and take away different lessons.
There is no single formula that can help you produce great leaders. It is also not possible to replicate a leader’s life or experiences. The experiences you have in your life may not happen to someone else. The key is to learn from each experience.
Early work experiences
Good leaders learn most of their core leadership lessons during the early part of their careers. Depending on their situation, different people have varied experiences in their jobs. What makes up early work experience? It could mean different things to different people. For some, an early work experience could be a summer job and for others, it could be a career placement. Practical work that you do during your college or university could also count as early work experience for many.
What if the early work experience was not very pleasant? An experience does not have to be pleasant to teach you valuable life lessons. What sets up good leaders from the others is that they look for a lesson in every experience that life throws at them. They learn some valuable lessons even in the most monotonous and boring jobs that they did in their early careers.
Dealing with a bad boss could also teach some valuable life lessons. Knowing what to do as a good leader is important. But it is equally important to know what not to do as a leader. Working for a bad boss is often the motivation great leaders need to do things differently in their lives.
The best indicator of leadership skills is the ability of a person to learn from any situation. It is about how you can take the best from a situation and use that to make you more effective in the future.
Experience with other people
Effective leaders learn not only from situations but also from the people around them. It is possible to learn from everyone at the workplace, including bosses, colleagues, and your direct reports. Learning from others is a crucial trait of an effective leader.
It is possible to learn different lessons from different people that you encounter in your life. Advisors, coaches, and teachers could provide lessons in formal ways. However, the best leaders also learn from the experiences of others.
The willingness to learn is one of the most important traits of an effective leader. Every lesson learned could make a leader more effective in their role. However, lessons learned from people are not always enjoyable. You can learn from the success of others as well as from their failures.
Aspiring leaders should always be aware of the opportunities to learn from others. For a high-performing employee, it could be about maintaining balance, being more receptive, and becoming more efficient at work.
Great leaders take on many different roles and responsibilities in their personal and professional lives, which is what makes them great in the first place. The best leaders constantly look out for new responsibilities that they can take on. However, they are also smart enough to not take on more than what they can handle. The most efficient leaders know when their abilities and talents are being pushed to the limit.
Taking on new responsibilities also involves learning new skills. It also helps you learn about your own capabilities and limits, besides giving you a broader overview of how organizations function.
Of course, there will be moments when the responsibilities are greater and the stakes are higher. This could help you transition to a bigger role, and a good leader recognizes that. Major responsibilities provide opportunities to learn in a challenging environment. It also helps future leaders understand the limits of their capabilities and make them more aware of how they can handle the stress at work.
Life is not a bed of roses. Everyone goes through hardships in their lives. Even the most resilient and capable leaders would find themselves in adversity and hardship at some point in their lives. The true essence of leadership is learning to overcome adversities in life. Learning to manage a crisis early on in your career could be a stepping stone to becoming a great leader in the future.
Learning to work in difficult situations early on can help develop the capacity to handle hardships. It will help you remain calm and composed and organize your thoughts around how you can overcome the difficult situation. If you have never been in a difficult situation before, how do you know how to react in a crisis? If you are in a leadership position, a lot of lives depend on you. Your employees look to you for direction. By remaining in control of yourself and the situation, you can prevent deflated morale and chaos at the workplace.
Hardships are a part of life and they help you understand what you truly value in life. The ability to motivate your staff, use the right resources, and maintain team cohesion is best learned from experience. Good and bad times both give you the experience you need to become a great leader.
Hardship also reveals the true nature of people. Some people rise to the occasion and overcome the challenges while others panic and cave in. It is during hard times that you can understand how happy or fit an organization truly is. Hardship helps you differentiate between your needs and wants and that of others. It teaches you to cope with stress, and make a calm and informed decision even in a difficult situation.
Failure is not the opposite of success. It is a part of success. As a leader, you will be required to take a lot of risks. Sometimes things will work out in your favor, and sometimes it won’t. But, in both situations, you will have something to learn.
Learning from failure is one of the coveted traits of a good leader. They do not wait for the right experience to learn. Instead, they learn from all experiences, good and bad.
Dealing with failure early on in your career is important for leadership development. When you are in the early stages of your career, the stakes are lower and consequences are not as adverse. A leader who has never failed in life may never learn from their mistakes. Someone who cannot learn from their mistakes cannot be a good leader ever.
Great results come from experience, not credentials!
Credentials, no doubt, are important. However, a leader with credentials but no real-world experience is not the leader you are looking for. You don’t learn important life lessons in a classroom. How many leaders do you know of who have learned an important lesson in a structured learning environment? Not many. The most important lessons that you learn in life come through experience.
Many organizations use the 70/20/10 model for leadership development. The framework states that leaders obtain 70% of their knowledge from experience, 20% from interacting with other people, and only 10% from an educational setting.
How does experience help leaders achieve great results?
It creates a growth mindset
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” —Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison made thousands of unsuccessful attempts before inventing the light bulb, but he never gave up. That is an example of a growth mindset.
People with a fixed mindset believe that talent, intelligence, and abilities are fixed traits. You either have the talent for something or you don’t. However, people with a growth mindset believe that they can expand their abilities through effort. People with a growth mindset watch their abilities grow with every available instance, while those with fixed mindsets miss these opportunities.
Mindset is not a fixed trait. Your experiences and how you learn from them determine whether you have a fixed or growth mindset. The good news is, a fixed mindset is not permanent. Being aware that you are moving into a fixed mindset can help you switch back to growth mode. When you have a growth mindset, you are less likely to be discouraged by failure. It is because you look at challenges and difficult situations as learning opportunities.
You seek feedback
People often hesitate to openly speak their minds in front of people in higher positions. Due to this attitude, most leaders only hear positive messages from their employees. But what a leader actually needs is honest feedback, regardless of whether it is good or bad. A leader is often unaware that their actions and behavior are negatively impacting their team’s performance or morale. That’s because no one tells them that.
A courageous leader actively seeks honest feedback. They demonstrate that there is room for improvement for everyone, and establishes a work culture of continuous improvement.
Not everyone shares feedback with a leader because they feel it is risky. It is up to the leader to create a safe environment by openly expressing the desire to receive honest feedback. As a leader, you should also seek feedback from different perspectives, not just your managers or close peers. Gathering feedback from different people can help you get a deeper understanding of how your leadership impacts the organization. However, avoid being defensive because that will only ensure that you never receive constructive criticism.
It helps in successful behavior change
Why should you have a growth mindset and seek feedback? Because doing so helps you change the behavior that is stopping you from becoming a great leader.
Leaders need to move from learning from their experiences to creating new habits and behavior to evolve and grow. Start by focusing on one goal at a time. Focusing on too many objectives will only make you lose focus and you will not be able to make the desired behavior change.
When you set a goal, also define why you have set that goal. If your goal is not important and meaningful to your leadership success, you may need to choose a different goal. Your planning should not only be about achieving your goal but also about overcoming obstacles on the way.
If you truly want to make a behavior change, tell someone you respect. It will keep you accountable and you will be more likely to hit your goal.
Great leaders are great learners!
Great leaders learn not only in the classroom but also from life. ‘Credentials + real-world experience’ is the winning combination for a great leader.