To me, a distilled definition of a leader is someone who can conceive a vision then inspire others to share that vision in order to translate it into reality. This definition, simple at first, is only the tip of the iceberg. Each verb contained within the above definition (conceive, inspire, translate to reality) is a complicated skill. Learning each skill is like learning to play an instrument, and becoming an effective leader is therefore much like becoming a symphony of one. Although leadership development is never something that is fully obtained, in this essay I will attempt to describe the journey the way I see it.
In my three years at Penn State and two years in the PLA I have been exposed to many leaders as well as leadership development opportunities. I see the importance of leadership in both everyday life and on a societal level. I define an effective leader as someone who is good at conceiving, inspiring, and translating into reality, but what makes someone good at those things? What are distinguishing characteristics that these people have developed in order to get them to a high level? These characteristics can be expressed in terms of three types of knowledge: knowledge of self, knowledge of others, and knowledge of the world.
Knowledge of Self
Every effective leader I have witnessed possesses and air of self-assuredness. They have a way of being confident in their actions, even if that action is confidently (and wisely) admitting that they are unsure of something. They have an honest self-assessment process, which results in a steadiness that others are drawn to and are willing to follow. This confidence is rooted in self-knowledge. Effective leaders simply know who they are. I believe that experience is the best teacher when it comes to obtaining this knowledge.
One of the main differences I have noticed about myself in comparison to the person I was when I arrived at Penn State is simply that I have a much better idea of who I am today than I did when I was 18. Part of this, I'm sure, is natural maturing, but the other part is experiencing a wide variety of things. Knowing ones self means knowing your tendencies and knowing what to expect out of yourself when put in certain situations. In my time at Penn State I have experienced many things. I know how I respond to many more situations than I did when I came here as a freshman. Some of the experiences in my reference bank are normal for Penn Staters. I know how I'll react to 110,000 fans screaming for a single cause at Beaver Stadium: I'll join in. I know that I have no idea how Ill react when they reveal a total at THON: Who knew laughing and crying mixed so well? Other experiences in my "experience bank" are more individual. I know that I get a little bit nervous public speaking, so I have learned to quickly relax myself before those situations. Over time, more public speaking experiences have built up my confidence has risen. On a slightly deeper level, I have developed a more defined sense of what I stand for. I have a better idea of what I personally want out of life and that gives me more direction in my endeavors.
One of my managers at GE, where I had a co-op over the summer, gave me some great advice that relates to self-knowledge. GE has a system of identifying great employees and promoting them. The rating system is based on a complex series of metrics that aren't really important here, but there are 4 categories that an employee can be placed in and the last one is the best. It is relatively rare to get into that category. On my last week of my co-op rotation my manager sat me down and went over this ranking system with me. He pointed to the 4th category and asked me if I knew what every single person who had ever gotten the highest distinction had in common. I didn't. I guessed that they all had strong work ethic. I was wrong. He looked at me in the eye and said that every single person who had ever gotten the highest distinction truly loved their job. At the time, I wasn't quite sure where my manager was going with this, but he proceeded to tell me. He said "You're young. Your job right now is to take risks, to try things, and to find the thing that you love to do. It's as simple as that." This advice was some of the most powerful I have ever received, and to me it related back to knowing myself. The people who had tried different jobs and learned their own reactions to them were the ones who eventually found a place they loved. Because they were then comfortable with their current state, they were successful. This concept does not only apply to careers, but to life in general. I believe that the state of knowing and being comfortable with yourself is the first necessary characteristic of an effective leader.
Knowledge of Others
Leadership is not a solitary art. By nature, it involves people, whether that is one or one thousand. Effective leaders must listen to people, understand them, and be ale to relate to them. Knowledge of others requires a degree of selflessness because you have to be able to take yourself out of the equation entirely and assess a situation from another's point of view. Knowing about the people within your sphere of influence is vital in communicating ideas. Other people are the most direct bridge from the inside of an individual's brain to the outside world. Without knowledge of people, and therefore without effective communication, people are islands stranded with only their thoughts.
A key component to effective leadership is conveying ideas. In order to do this, one must have a feel for what the other person already knows, what they already believe, and what their expectations are. Penn State and the Presidential leadership academy have done an excellent job of exposing their students to a wide variety of people. In my opinion going to a big school is good for developing a feel for other people without having to know them personally. There is a large distinction between having a feel for a person and judging them. Judging, to me, requires the application of pre-conceived notion to someone you have just met. It is allowing bias of previous encounters effect a present encounter. What I mean by developing a feel for people is taking each interaction one at a time and picking up on the nuances associated with the conversation. At Penn State, we are surrounded by people we don't know a large portion of the time because it is a large school. This forces Penn State students to become accustomed to interactions with people who they may not be familiar with, which requires attention to detail. When you don't know someone, you don't know their personality, you only know what they show you in conversation. Whether we as Penn State students realize it or not, communicating effectively with people are not familiar is a valuable skill. If forces you to look beyond pre-conceived notions to deliver the message you want to convey to the actual individual you are communicating with, not an merely idea of the individual.
Knowledge of people builds on the knowledge of self because knowing how to convey ideas requires both a knowledge of the other person and of oneself. As a leader, you must find a way to connect, and that connection is a two way street. Good leaders know who they are and are in tune with those around them. They are then able to establish a connection and communicate effectively.
My experience in the PLA and at Penn State has given me a lot of experience in communicating complex ideas .When I do this, I have found through experience that the best way to explain something is to fully consider the other person's point of view. Recently, I was explaining a complex homework problem to someone, and I first asked the person what they had read. When they told me that they had read nothing on the subject, I immediately knew where to start. I had established common ground.
A great example of a leader who understands the people around him is John Surma. In his presentation, it was evident that he had read our biographies and taken the time to get to know the people he would be interacting with that day. When he came in and knew my major, I was immediately impressed. This was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and he not only knew my name, but he knew my major and had also taken the time to buy me a book that he thought I should read (yes, I've read it and it is great). Mr. Surma's knowledge of the people in his surrounding, among many other things, make him a great leader
Knowledge of the World
A leader who knows themselves and is able to know and connect with those around him or her will be an effective leader within his or her sphere of influence. In my opinion, great leaders are able to look even beyond their sphere of influence by also being in tune with the world. This is why it is important for us to read the New York Times and stay informed in general. A leader must be able to look far out into the world, bring the information back, and then communicate it to their sphere of influence. This knowledge of the outside world provides context, which allows for a leader to position his of her self and his or her sphere of influence to react to outside conditions. An effective leader must be equally good at simultaneously navigating immediate issues and relationships, predicting future conditions, and catalyzing change in order to prepare.
The three subjects of knowledge (self, others, and world) are the three instruments of leadership. A leader must play each to be great. A leader must know themselves so that they can confidently reach out to connect with other people, but they must also have knowledge of the other person. Beyond this, a leader must be able to grasp what is going on in the macroscopic world to provide context and direction to his or her sphere of influence.