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Taking the Helm: Leaders born in the course of leading

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

Leadership is often discussed in terms of what the “heroic” leader does, what we should aspire to achieve as leaders, or what an author or speaker hopes will happen with future leaders. It’s very motivational to think about what we can achieve if we can just pull everyone together.

Reality often slaps those heroic, aspirational and hopeful ideas in the face since there’s a huge mismatch between what we’re told about leadership and how it works in the real world. Motivational speeches only last so long.

Consider how much money is spent every year on leadership training, coaching, courses, book sales, speeches, videos, etc., with very little to no lasting change to show for it in the workplace after the fact. The reality is, leadership can’t be taught in the safety of a classroom or conveyed through a book. Leadership happens in the real world, between people. And it’s often messy.

In the real world, leadership is a mishmash of many things. The situation in which leadership happens, whether it’s an emergency or not, how patient a leader is, whether the leader demonstrates and sets clear expectations about what needs to be done – all these factors play a part in the effectiveness of  leadership. So too does the personality traits of both leader and follower; perhaps a leader is a control freak, and the follower is a loner and simply doesn’t want to follow anyone. A leader’s skill in selling their ideas to the team also has a huge impact on success.

The list is long, and all of these variables demonstrate why it’s so difficult to define and categorize leadership. It’s simply not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. While there are many things that could be taught in a leadership training course, there is one incontrovertible skill everyone needs, leader or not: the ability to sell. Learning how to be a better salesperson will bring lasting change to the work place.

This may seem like an odd statement, since selling isn’t a specific leadership skill often discussed in courses or books. This comes back to the aspirational, hopeful or heroic nature of leadership training. Selling is a real-world, hands-on skill that’s beneath the notice of leadership gurus. The gurus have their heads in the clouds, hoping to change the world, while their students need concrete skills to succeed in the workplace of here and now.  

To the detriment of many, leaders don’t necessarily seek out tools to succeed, relying instead on the use of force or threats to engender compliance from followers. Force and threats work for a short time on a few people, but create conflict and negative feelings toward  the leader in the long run. Successful leaders, however, have books written about them when they skillfully persuade others to do what must be done. In other words, successful leaders sell instead of threaten.

In the big picture, everyone – no matter age, gender, new hire or seasoned professional – must be a salesperson. Parents try to sell the idea of taking piano or swimming lessons to their children. Children try to sell their parents on the idea of buying a new PS4. Union leaders must sell the newly negotiated contract to their members. Deckhands try to sell the bosun or mate on a new deck product. Engineers try to sell the captain or owner on a new piece of equipment. And captains must sell their ideas to the owner.

It’s not necessarily the steps of a sale that we need to master, rather it’s the psychology behind selling we should focus on. When we know why to approach someone one way and not another, we become more effective in our role, no matter the position we hold.

In Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence,” he breaks down why we behave the way we do when we encounter certain triggers. These triggers have been known by salespeople for hundreds of years and are used on consumers today in every sales interaction we encounter. For example, why is that men spend so much extra money on a tie, a belt, a hat, or a pair of shoes, when we only went into the store to buy a suit.

As a leader of any kind, when we improve our sales skills, we’ll experience  increasing success. Read Cialdini’s book as soon as possible to improve down-to-earth leadership skills.   

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.

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