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Know thyself

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Why is it that some people excel in leadership roles, while others fail? Much has been written about this subject, and while one definitive answer hasn't emerged, the dialogue suggests that are several critical factors that appear to differentiate between a star performer and an average leader.

Everyone defines leadership success differently; some might look only at titles, while others focus more on responsibilities and the amount of influence wielded. What separates those who are stellar as leaders from everyone else is the fact that they've buoyed their success by having a clear understanding of themselves. Specifically, you must be willing to prioritize self-exploration to understand both the needs and motivators that compel you to achieve, along with determining your willingness to engage in risk to achieve your goals.

Focus on needs and motivators
David McClelland, a pioneer in motivational theory, developed an “acquired needs theory” proposing that people's specific needs are acquired over time and shaped by their life experiences. According to this theory, a person's motivation and effectiveness in his or her job are influenced by needs that can be classified in three areas:
1. Need for achievement. People with high achievement needs seeks the attainment of realistic but challenging goals and advancement on the job. There is a strong desire to succeed and excel in their work. Researchers further suggest that there are different factors that impact your need for achievement at work. Those factors include wanting:

  • To gain approval from experts;
  • To make money;
  • To succeed on your own;
  • To earn respect from colleagues;
  • To compete and win.
  • 2. Need for Power. Those who are driven by power are interested in being effective and feeling influential — making an impact anywhere they can. These people seek to be involved in decision-making (or be the ultimate decider) and leave their mark on their organizations.

    3. Need for Affiliation. Those who are driven by affiliation might be considered “connectors.” They want to develop and maintain friendly relationships. These people are typically good team players and client contacts. They also seek to be well regarded.

    We all possess different levels of each of these needs. An important step for increasing your leverage as a leader is to identify the impact of your needs on your behavior. Take a moment to consider where you would fall in each of these areas and rank yourself on each one of these needs (achievement, power and affiliation) on a scale from 1-10(lowest to highest). Next consider the work behaviors you engage in to support your needs as a leader. For example: achievement-seekers may be motivated to excel to attain a status and recognition in their field; power-seekers may be vocal during meetings, trying to control the conversation; and affiliation-seekers may connect with employees/clients on a personal level.

    Risk Tolerance
    “Playing to win” is a phrase often associated with sports; commentators often note that individuals or teams are either playing to win—really going for it— or “playing not to lose”—taking a more conservative approach. The same terminology can apply in the business world, and in particular to leaders.

    Those who frequently get out of their comfort zone are certainly playing to win, while those who aren't challenging themselves are playing not to lose, i.e., playing it safe. People who don't stretch themselves and get uncomfortable ultimately go backward, since they're essentially “marking time” rather than pushing themselves forward.

    Those who aspire to be outstanding leaders need to ensure they're playing to win, asking themselves what they can do differently, what they're willing to change and the following questions:
    What are some of my irrational beliefs or fears that limit me?

  • Am I afraid of failure or success?
  • What stops me from setting challenges higher and achieving them?
  • Is this a job or a career?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What motivates me?
  • Am I having fun?
  • What are my current strategies, and are they limiting me or helping me?
  • Leaders who know more about themselves have the opportunity to be more powerful if they leverage that knowledge to help them meet their goals. They must be aware of what they love about their position — the challenge, the work, the money, etc. — as well as what they gain from it: self-confidence, self-respect or something else.

    Finally, they make sure they're not doing things to limit their progress — since in the business “game,” they're actually competing against themselves.

    Denise P. Federer, Ph.D., is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]


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