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Leadership Lessons Learned: My Greatest Mistakes

MA - Houghton mifflin Mary Cullinane_jpgby Mary Cullinane

What is effective leadership?  I hate to break the news to you, but I just don’t think there’s a checklist or an easy answer to that question.  We spend a lot of time discussing key traits, management styles and necessary leadership skills in an attempt to come up with a foolproof formula for success. We wonder if leadership qualities are innate or learned or gendered, and we debate how to measure capability or how best to mentor others.

Sure, these discussions promote healthy reflection, but it’s just not that simple. I believe that we never stop learning.  Just being aware of this simple fact can make a huge difference in how we approach and define ourselves as leaders. My personal experience has taught me that the process is as much about empowering others as it is about empowering yourself. And while I can’t hand you the roadmap to becoming a successful leader, there is one thing I can tell you for sure – it’s when I’ve made mistakes that I’ve learned the most.  So with that, I’ll share some of the places I’ve failed and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Model behavior

When I began my career as a 22 year-old classroom teacher, I quickly realized that there was no handbook and that the lessons I would learn from my students were just as important as those from my peers. Teachers cannot expect to positively influence students and help them grow without modeling the behaviors they teach. It’s important to be purposeful in your interactions, and think about how they impact others. A quick route to poor leadership is to hold yourself to a different standard than those you intend to lead. Good leaders are human – they are accessible and relatable and they care about interactions at every level, as they all add up to the behavior you model for employees or students.

Don’t wait to lead

Leadership is not a place or time in your career. You don’t have to have an office in the executive suite or a team of direct reports to display leadership qualities, so give yourself permission to reach out and find an area where you can develop these skills. It isn’t a senior title that makes others value your input. It’s the mutual respect you develop in taking a leap and showing your level of commitment to both your colleagues and the projects you share.

Use your energy wisely

Worrying too much about impediments to success can easily become a distraction and a waste of time, energy and effort. We often can’t help but become stressed by the barriers we face – gender inequality, infrastructure challenges, lack of resources, and the list goes on. But the energy we expend on mounting worries can block the path to creative solutions and collaborations, limiting our abilities to make a positive impact to an even greater extent than the initial roadblocks themselves.  Try to focus on solutions, not barriers, and focus on what you can control.

Don’t just look out for #1

We spend a lot time – like the minutes spent reading articles like this one! – on introspection and thinking about our own behaviors and actions. I’m not debating the value of that, but as a leader it’s just as important to focus on how you can help those around you. Great leaders enable others to do more than they think they can. Great leaders inspire and help to make others great. The job is not only to create and communicate a vision and strategy, but to help others succeed, by listening, removing barriers and challenging them in ways that promote growth — even if that means some mistakes happen along the way. Always remember that it’s a process.

Mary Cullinane is Chief Content Officer and EVP, Corporate Affairs, at global education leader Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.