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Want to be a better leader? Learn, practice, and reflect

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More than ever, leaders in public and nonprofit organizations are pressed for time and energy as they are being called upon to solve problems and meet challenges while having fewer and fewer resources on which to draw. In today’s chaotic environment, local government leaders must find ways to be more effective. And while it may be the last thing a busy leader is inclined to do, one of the best ways for leaders to improve their effectiveness is to take time to learn, practice, and reflect.

Leadership effectiveness depends on an interaction between the leader’s traits and the context of the situation (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2006; Nahavandi, 2009). A leader’s values, abilities, and personality traits impact the way he or she thinks, behaves, gathers and processes information, makes decisions, solves problems, and interacts with others. These characteristics are rendered more or less effective by the context of the situation, making it imperative that leaders become skilled at aligning their leadership style and the situation. This requires leaders to understand both their own personal traits and the environment in which they lead, something best accomplished through a process of learning, practice, and self-reflection (Denhardt & Denhart, 2006).

Gather information

To build your understanding, you need to begin to gather some information. First, learn about your own traits (Nahavandi, 2009). What is most valuable to you? How do you gather and process information? How do you make decisions? Do you tend to focus more on the tasks at hand or the relationships among those you lead? How in touch are you with your emotions? How do you interact with others? How responsible do you feel for what goes on around you? What sources of power are you most comfortable with? What are the characteristics of your personal style?

There are many tools available to help you, including a wide variety of “self  quizzes” such as Personal Style and Myers Briggs Type inventories; emotional intelligence, locus of control, and personal power measurements; “least preferred coworker” (LPC), self-monitoring, and authentic leadership assessments; and a whole host of others. Versions of these assessments can be found in current books on leadership or online.

Second, learn about the environment in which you lead by paying attention both to the tendencies of those you with whom you work and the characteristics of the situation. How similar or different is your “style” compared with those around you? How might differences lead to problems in goal attainment? What role does the organizational culture play? What sources of power are available to you? Learning more in these areas can help you better manage your interpersonal relationships and improve your leadership skills.

Put your knowledge to work

Learning is crucial to increasing your effectiveness but unless you put what you’ve learned into practice, it won’t do you any good. Think about how athletes and artists build their skills. Golfers can learn the basics of a good swing by reading books and watching others but won’t develop their own skill until they actually swing a club. Painters can learn about perspective, mixing colors, and so forth by reading and watching but until they put paint to canvas themselves, they remain observers rather than painters (Denhardt & Denhart, 2006).

The same thing applies to leadership. Effective leadership involves skills that are developed over time, so once you’ve begun to gather information, look for opportunities to apply what you’ve learned to your work as a leader and practice, practice, practice.

Assess your success

To maximize your effectiveness, it’s important to take the time to reflect on your experiences. Like the athlete or artist who reviews his or her performance in order to improve, assessing your leadership efforts will help you become more effective.

One of the best ways to do this is to keep a journal in which you describe your successes and your challenges and analyze what factors affected the outcomes (Denhardt & Denhart, 2006). Ask yourself what impact your personal traits and style may have had and how the traits of others and the context of the situation may have contributed. What did you do well? What could you improve? What adjustments would make you more effective the next time? Honest self-appraisals of your success and failures will help you increase your skills and become a more effective leader.

Start all over again

Finally, keep in mind that learning, practice, and self-reflection should be an ongoing cycle. Gather knowledge, practice, and assess your experiences, then take what you learned from your reflection and repeat the process. The more it becomes a part of your overall leadership strategy, the easier it becomes and the more valuable it will be.


Denhardt, R.B., & Denhardt, J.V. (2006). The dance of leadership: The art of leading in business, government, and society. M.E. Sharpe.

Nahavandi, A. (2009). The art and science of leadership (5th ed). Pearson Prentice Hall.

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