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The Leadership Toolbox

The Leadership Toolbox

I fondly remember growing up and helping my father carry his toolboxes to various jobs. My father ran a side business that repaired and installed things like furnaces, air conditioners, and hot water tanks. He also was called out by those who needed miscellaneous repairs such as leaking faucets, damaged drains, and was even called out for the occasional “can you fix my car” scenario. Although my father was a senior executive at a large steel mill, he had a diverse mechanical mind, and could fix (or at least try to fix) just about anything – some would say those attributes are a lost art these days.

I also remember that my father had several toolboxes at his disposal. He had one that was specifically designed for plumbing jobs, one for pipe-fitting, another for electrical, yet another for tin bending, and one just for miscellaneous tools. He knew what every toolbox was for, and what was in each one. When the need arose, he would tell me to load the car with the specific toolbox needed. Rarely would he ask me to put the plumbing toolbox in the car when he was going to fix an electrical problem. In the same way, he would not have me carry the tin bending toolbox (which was heavy and still haunts me with the thoughts of crushed fingers) to a job that was for a leaking pipe under a vanity. The thought behind having separate toolboxes was intentional and strategic.

So, you may be asking yourself, “What does any of this have to do with leadership?” If we examine effective leaders, we see that they also carry a variety of “toolboxes”. The tools placed in these leadership toolboxes are accumulated over years, and are used with precision. The responsibility of amassing these leadership tools falls on the leader. The tools can be gained through knowledge and experience, either through formal or informal means. Just like a successful mechanic, the more tools in the toolbox, the higher the possibility the situation at hand will be adequately confronted. Leaders with very few, or no, tools in their toolboxes will find that when specific needs arise, they will ultimately fail.

The possibilities for tools in the leadership toolbox are vast. It is essential that leaders pick and choose what tools they want in their toolbox carefully. In most cases, these tools will be related to their specific job functions, professional aspirations, or passions. Smart leaders know their tools, know how they function, and have the astute ability to quickly use them when needed. Additionally, talented leaders know that if they are missing a tool, or do not know how to use the tool that is desperately needed, they will need to find it fast, borrow or steal it, or call someone who might possess that tool. Either way, successful leaders will obtain that tool – and use it!

Although a book can be written on the various toolboxes available for leaders, we will quickly analyze three of them in this article.

The People Toolbox

Someone once said that, “military leaders sacrifice themselves for others, while organizational leaders sacrifice others for themselves!” However, many organizations, such as Virgin Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and HCL Technologies, have publically defied this traditional culture and have placed employees above customers. We are not going to elaborate on that philosophy in this article, however, know that by creating this culture of “employees first”, the outcome is essentially more productivity and creativity, higher employee fulfillment, and increased customer satisfaction.

The People Toolbox should therefore be filled with tools related to effective communication, the ability to handle conflict, rapport building, interpersonal skills, serving others, emotional intelligence, teambuilding, feedback, and genuine care.

The Strategic Toolbox

Warren G. Bennis once said, “Leadership is the ability to translate vision into reality.” Leaders have the responsibility to envision the future and lead others toward goals – thus, strategic leadership. However, this is no easy task – especially in an environment where technological advances continue to shorten the spectrum of strategic planning and execution.

According to a recent Forbes article, only 10% of leaders are classified as strategic leaders. Strategic planning was traditionally defined as a long-range process that took place over several years. Now, it has transformed into a process that takes as little as a year, or even just months.

Leaders do not have the luxury to “think ahead” for several years – their mindset must be on critical, short-term strategic objectives that match, or at the very least accommodate, environmental variations and organizational capabilities.

The Strategic Toolbox should encompass such tools as visionary thought processes, foresight, strategic planning, strategic execution, transformational knowledge, courage to challenge the status quo, fearlessness, an understanding of the complex relationship between the organization and its environment, the ability to take decisive action through ambiguity, complexity, and chaos, and a knack for “building commitment to the organization’s strategic direction by inviting others into the strategic process, forging relationships inside and outside the organization, and navigating the political landscape.”

The Individual Toolbox

The Individual Toolbox holds those tools essential to every leader’s success. Unfortunately, these tools can be the most difficult to accrue. They can be taught, but sometimes they are simply the result of experience, or pure genetics.

Those in leadership positions who find it difficult to amass these attributes will find that building a mentorship or coaching inner circle will assist in developing the skills they need. Seek out those who have been there, have experienced circumstances, and who can transmit their experiential realities. In a world of technology, it is not hard to embrace the expertise of others and formulate your own wisdom to the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, or Abraham Lincoln (now that’s a lineup to emulate!).

The individual toolbox embraces those intangible tools associated with being motivational, inspirational, transformational, vulnerable, trustworthy, creative, committed, selfless, passionate, innovative, transparent, confident, patient, stoic, authentic, and empowering.

Don’t be mistaken and think that the leadership toolbox is simply a “bag of tricks” that leaders possess by reading a few articles, listening to some TED Talks, or attending a one-day conference on management skills. Far from it! The leadership toolbox is a powerful collection of characteristics, unique to each leader, developed and assembled over time and with much passion.

Every leader has essential toolboxes and tools at their disposal. How and when to use them is dictated by the given situation, the environment that exists, or the culture they have created. The leadership toolbox and tools are ever-changing, and leaders understand that an essential part of leadership success is to maintain knowledge and wisdom of these tools, their applications, and their consequences. When leaders stop seeking new leadership tools and become stagnant in their approaches and strategies toward improvement, their complacent actions will dictate individual and organizational failure.

I did not realize as a young man, carrying those heavy toolboxes for my father, what implications it would have on my life as a person and leader. However, what I do know now is that successful leaders know how to obtain the correct tools, what tools to grab, when to use them, and how to use them.

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by Jeff Belsky MBA, D.B.A. // Dr. Jeff Belsky holds an MBA and a Doctorate Degree in Business Administration (DBA). He is a Vice President of Strategy for an organization in Pittsburgh, and a Certified Executive Leadership Coach with Solutions 21, an international organizational development company located in Pittsburgh, PA.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.