Becoming a great leader is a lot like becoming an elite athlete. When was the last time you heard of someone making it to the NBA by reading books and studying plays alone? Never.
In reality, it requires both being a student of the game and then playing for years under the guidance of good coaches.
Leadership is similar. Studying it is important, but if you want to be great you also have to practice. And what good is practice if there is no one to guide you with pointers and strategies for improvement?
That’s where the guidance of coaches, or mentors, comes in.
Like our NBA analogy, you should expect to have many leadership mentors over the course of your career. Each will bring unique insight that will help you grow and become a more effective leader.
You cannot lead alone, and you cannot learn to lead alone
Leadership is about influencing others to join you in making extraordinary things happen. Everything about leadership requires “others” involvement, so if you haven’t already, seek leadership mentors to help you in your development.
One of the mistakes people make when seeking a leadership mentor is looking for the person with the biggest title.
Just because someone has a big title does not mean they know one wit about leadership. The workplace is teeming with people who have authority but know little about influence. And influence is what real leadership is about.
When seeking leadership mentors, look for people who you know to be leaders and consider casting a wide net. It could be a friend, a former teacher or coach, or a leader within a community organization with which you are involved. It does not need to be someone you work with.
Here are some key factors to keep in mind as you’re seeking leadership mentors
You can have a succession of one mentor at a time during your career, or, you can have more than one mentor at the same time. They key is to recognize when you’ve found someone with the right combination of talent, experience and interest in you and your career.
Seeking mentors does not have to be a formal event. You are simply seeking to connect with those who can share their experience and story with you.
A strong relationship with a mentor can last for years. This continuity can be of great benefit because a mentor who “knew you when…” has more context for supporting you in your growth.
Always remember to follow these basic guidelines with respect to your mentors
Respect their time. Keep in mind that while it’s ok to reach out to your mentors between formal meetings, don’t take advantage by constantly calling or emailing.
Be flexible. Connect with your mentors where and when it works best for them.
Show your appreciation. Send your mentors thank-you notes after they give you particularly helpful advice, and always offer to provide any assistance you can for their careers.
If you are serious about leadership, invest the time to develop relationships with those who can help you be even better. It takes time, it takes effort and you’re worth it.