Leader’s Forum: The best self-improvement model starts with this – be yourself

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Follow the leadership book of the month or be yourself? I say, be yourself! Being you is how you got where you are and being you is more comfortable than trying to be someone else.

Do we all constantly need to improve? Yes. Do leadership books help us do this? Of course they do. The issue is when people try to wholesale reinvent themselves based on the latest book they read. This is unsustainable and a certain recipe for failure.

We've got to assume that with respect to leadership, you being yourself is already "good." That is how to you got where you currently are. With this in mind, improvement involves only tweaking rather than radical change.

My basic improvement model has four components: improve strengths; whittle away rough spots; address gaping holes and grow. If you have a solid strength like building teams or leading change, etc., it is important to pursue being even better at it. This is like a pitcher with a great fastball and marginal other pitches. Even while trying to improve his other pitches he will never cease to work at making his fastball better.

Rough spots are minor weaknesses where you need to improve but they aren't large glaring issues. One of my rough spots is time management. I constantly work to improve this weakness and am slowly whittling it away. It rears its ugly head often at the most inopportune time like a teenage zit the day before the prom. I can usually get everything back on track with a dab of Clearasil and by refocusing and employing time management techniques.

Gaping holes are areas that quickly need to be addressed to prevent serious issues. Gaping holes are things like significant financial issues, discrimination and an uncontrollable temper. Any of these can obviously derail a career in an instant. It is imperative that expedited actions are taken to fix these issues.

Gaping holes can also include things like severe physical or mental illness. I can really relate to this right now. I've been battling acute Leukemia for almost a year now. The physically draining treatment and time away from the office makes it difficult to lead. I've addressed this to date by first off surrounding myself with a wonderful and amazing staff and communicating with them accurately and often. I've also worked very hard to understand my disease, stay physically and mentally fit and be treated by a premier medical team (UCLA). I've been able to reduce what started out as a gaping hole to a rough spot with the ultimate goal of getting rid of it altogether.

The last improvement model component is to grow. As you move up the chain, decision making becomes more complex. More and more your decisions can have greater impact on the organization and more significant effects on people's lives. You especially need to grow in strategic understanding in order to meet these higher level decision-making needs. Use of a mentor, broadening assignments and working your way on to your higher level organization's strategic thinking teams is a good way to develop these skills.

To be effective following any improvement plan you first need to know where to start. We already established that the starting point is yourself. In this context, the characteristics of yourself are your strengths, weaknesses and gaping holes. We already know most of these through self awareness. To get a better understanding we need to look at supervisor feedback, mentor advice, and 360-degree feedback. I highly recommend training that involves good 360-degree feedback as this can be very helpful and often eye opening. Once we can list our strengths, weaknesses, and gaping holes we can start tweaking our leadership attributes.

Now let's get back to the leadership books. These books are an invaluable source of knowledge for improvement. I truly believe that leaders are readers. Self-study using these books provides methods building strengths, addressing weaknesses and gaping holes as well as strategic growth. We should be cautious however. I compare these to diet books. The right approach is to read and adapt what you learn to your situation using the basic improvement model rather than dropping "you" and following the whole diet book plan verbatim. In both cases, the author's primary motivation is to sell books. In order to do so the author has to provide a complete book so several great ideas may end up being stretched out into an entire "program." The key is to glean out the
great ideas only. Following these diet (or leadership) books wholesale typically never works in the long run.

Here is the bottom line. Always work to improve but be yourself. You are awesome! You got where you are because of who you are and you will get to where you want to go by being you and steadily improving.