Is Leadership a Craft?

By November 6, 2013Leadership

In an interview with Lolly Daskal, A Role Model Who Uses Small Gestures In a Big Way, Doug Conant said it again:

“Successful leaders should treat their leadership as a craft to be carefully honed and ever improving. The better we become, the more our competence and depth of character combine to form the most helpful contributions moment to moment.” Huffington Post, October 31, 2013

Leadership CraftIn several different articles or interview clips, I have read and heard Doug say something very similar. “Leadership as a craft” is an interesting belief, raising two questions:

  • Is leadership a craft?
  • If it leadership is a craft, how do you hone it?

Is Leadership a Craft?

There was a time I didn’t believe leadership was a craft. As I read different articles and books on leadership and business, they all started to sound the same. The content had many high sounding words, echoing with little substance. Fluff some would call it.

My preference was history, biographies, and autobiographies. In these stories, real people made real difficult decisions and changed the course of history or direction for good or bad. In history, there is rhetoric to inspire but the words were backed with actions. If not, the story was of high aspirations and missed opportunities for real results.

History instructs. History refreshes so we don’t repeat mistakes, only if we listen. Understanding history is what makes leaders better.

Although I still believe the role of history in helping leaders sharpen their skills and insights, I have come around to the role of books, articles, and other content on the topics of leadership, strategy, culture, and more. What some books deliver is a new, improved way to solve problems, build engaging cultures, implement creative strategies, and lead in more effective ways. Maybe the leadership books have gotten better or my mind is just more open to learning the art of possibility.

I do believe leadership is a craft to ever improve. As Doug Conant said, leadership-as-craft helps us develop greater depth and competence to the content of our leadership character. History books deliver the depth and context to leading and leadership books deliver the revitalized possibilities of what can work well in a changing world.

How Do You Hone Your Leadership Craft?

We already covered reading as a way to hone your leadership craft so read often! Read a mix of books – fiction and non-fiction. No matter the book, there is some insight you will gain from it.

Other practices may be more personal in nature, meaning it is what will work for you in how you learn and how you broaden your perspective. Some suggestions are:

Start or join a Meetup group. Over a year ago, we started Authentic Leadership Dallas. We now have 8-12 different people who get together monthly from across industries and backgrounds to share their insights and experiences. To get to this point took some time so don’t give up. The key is to engage in the community where you are. By doing this, you will become a better leader where you are.

Volunteer regularly. Whatever the organization or initiative, working for a greater cause or helping others in need will make you a better leader. You will be challenged. Your heart will grow, and your mind will open. By volunteering, your leadership spirit will be reignited.

Exercise consistently. A healthy body feeds a healthy mind and outlook. Fit leaders benefit from fit exercises. The exercises don’t have to be complex, just simply spend the time to take a walk or whatever works for you. There is a science to exercising in how it enhances your thinking. Keep moving, keep improving.

Interview someone you don’t know. Through the telephone, Google Hangouts, or coffee conversations, get together with another leader and ask questions about what they have learned and how they have approached situations. People are generally open to sharing their leadership story. Be diverse in who you engage. Diversity of people strengthens your leadership capabilities. Keep engaging others so you can be an engaging leader.

Mentor ahead. Identify one or two individuals from Gen Y and spend the time the guide their leadership development. Younger generations need a sounding board of experience, and you can provide that platform. Likewise, be mentored by an individual from Gen Y. Keeping your leadership perspective looking ahead is vital and learning from someone younger will open your mind and enhance your leadership skills. Keep guiding, be guided.

Leadership as a Craft

Doug Conant is right. Leadership is a craft. Treating leadership as a craft means we have to engage our core and work it out. Our leadership core consists of our mind, body, and soul. Each element is essential to leading more effectively. Each element needs to be honed while being opened up to new thoughts of what is possible and what needs to change in order to lead more deeply and more competently.

One caution: Don’t spend all your time on the sidelines learning your leadership craft without putting it into practice. Get in the arena and lead. Being in the arena, no matter where it is, will provide real advances to your leadership capabilities. Just be open to learning and adapting based on your arena-centered experiences.

How do you hone your leadership craft? Please share your practices.

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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  • lollydaskal says:

    Leadership most certainly a craft.

    It is a craft you are constantly developing, growing and grooming…

    I really like the way you developed a whole thought around Doug’s words.

    Truly fantastic!


    As far as Johns comment: Leadership is timeless …

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Lolly. Grateful for the Q&A you did with Doug Conant; it was a great exchange and spurred this post. Leadership is timeless and we need to carrry our leadership story forward for the generations ahead. Thanks! Jon

  • […] Is there such a thing as leadership craft? Can leadership be treated as a craft, always honing skills? Leadership is a craft, with the right practices.  […]

  • […] Is there such a thing as leadership craft? Can leadership be treated as a craft, always honing skills? Leadership is a craft, with the right practices.  […]

  • John Thurlbeck says:

    Hi Jon – I agree with you and Doug Conant! Leadership is a craft that can be honed and developed, as long as you remain open to learning! As Tom Peters once said, “Leaders learn!” I have always been a passionate advocate of learning as a leader! Over the past two days, I’ve been preparing materials for a front-line manager leadership development programme I’m facilitating next week. It has been an absolute blast to uncover and re-discover some powerful material that I haven’t thought about or used for a good while … and it still has strong resonance today!

    Great post and thank you for sharing! I hope all is well with you?

    Kind regards John 🙂

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, John. Going back to some of the classics is a great thing to do. I have recently bought some older books on some leaders, concepts, etc. Not all leadership wisdom needs to come from current sources; history instructs, too.

      Best wishes in your session next week! What a wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas and interact with a group. Thanks! Jon

      • John Thurlbeck says:

        Jon – you are most welcome … and I agree wholeheartedly! Thanks too for your kind wishes about next week! The group numbers 15 and I am delivering/facilitating 5 modules on leadership development. Next week is Module 3 … on leading your team! The group are all team leaders in children’s home, so a new audience for me, who have difficult and stressful roles and complex issues to address on a day-to-day basis. They have been lively, challenging, engaging, thoughtful and highly participative, which has been fantastic! I’ve not had so much fun for a long time!

  • Alli Polin says:

    Like so many of the commenters here, I too believe that leadership is a craft and two points you made stand out to me. 1) You’re not honing your craft if all you’re doing is reading book after book or attending conference after conference. The honing comes with the application and taking the words on the page and infusing them with your personal style. 2) Love that you not only suggested that we be a mentor to Gen Y but to be mentored. Brilliant!

    I’d also add that leaders that get out of their office and sit hip to hip, even periodically, with their front line team, observe and ask questions gain an amazing perspective that will inform their leadership and vision for the future.

    • Jon M says:

      Excellent advice, Alli. One cannot lead from sitting behind a desk all the time. Getting on the front line and digging in by asking questions and even doing some of the side-by-side work will enlighten and enhance our leadership. We need to view leadership as a two-way stream, an exchange of ideas and insights — no matter the generation or organizational place. Thanks so much! Jon

  • Dan Black says:

    Great thoughts, Jon! Yes, leadership is a craft that can and should be sharpened. I’ve found personal growth (Daily growing in the area of leadership) and implementing what I have learned into my everyday life, crucial when it comes to growing my leadership competence. Powerful post!

    • Jon M says:

      Thank so much, Dan. You raise a key point, which is to put what you learned into practice. Learning combined with changed actions will enable us to determine what works and how we can be better leaders. Appreciate it! Jon

  • Randy Conley says:

    I also agree that leadership is a craft. When you think of classic craftsmen, they tended to learn their trade from a mentor, and once they were established, also had an apprentice to whom they taught the trade.

    The same concept applies to us as leaders. I believe we learn most from role models we choose to emulate and we also have a responsibility to groom future leaders that are coming up behind us.

    Thought provoking post, Jon. Thanks!


    • Jon M says:

      Randy, Thanks for your input. The craftsmen model is a good one; it creates a partnership between two or more people and there is an openness in sharing and helping each other. Applying this to leadership is essential. Doing this will help bring leaders and future leaders together as well as eliminate perceived gaps between generations. Your insights are greatly appreciated! Jon

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    This was a wonderful post, my friend.

    I really like the idea of leadership being a craft that can be honed. The reason I like this perspective is that implies that leadership can learned and improved, just like any other skill that can be learned and improved. Hence, leadership is open to all of us.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Hiten. Leadership is open to all of us so we need to take on the responsibility of learning and growing our craft. Thanks! Jon

  • Terri Klass says:

    I’m with you, Jon and believe that leadership is definitely a craft that can be learned and can grow. All your ideas of how to cultivate a leadership role are terrific.

    I would add that I have learned so much through tweetchats and social media. It is amazing how much one can grow by actively participating in weekly tweetchats on many different subjects relating to leadership. I have also met extraordinary people on twitter as well, including you!

    Thanks for bringing up the concept of learning how to be an effective leader. It’s not something you have to be born with.


    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Terri, for a great addition on how to hone your leadership craft. Social media and tweetchats are wonderful ways to learn, engage, and become a better leader. These channels have been eye-opening ones for me and have learned a great deal. Your insights and blog are always helpful and guiding, so thank you, too! Appreciate the additional practices and comments. Jon

  • Joy Guthrie says:

    All very excellent suggestions, Jon. I would like to add one more. One way to open your eyes to where you need to further develop as a leader is to spend real time with those you are leading. I like “job shadowing.” In this case it’s like reverse job shadowing. Spend time with people so you can get a better feel for where the gaps are. It helps you manage PLUS it helps show you where your own leadership gaps may be.

    • Jon M says:

      Excellent point, Joy! Spending real time with the people on your team or around your organization is a very practical way to hone your craft of leadership. Starting where you are is always a great place to begin. Thanks for adding that practice into this mix! Jon

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