People do not learn leadership from books. They don't start with theory. New leaders learn leadership from more experienced leaders.
That's why leadership is an apprenticeship trade. Since the Middle Ages, apprentices have learned their craft from those who have already mastered it. To get the most out of the experience, you should do a few specific things.
Role Models: Watching Others
Start by identifying excellent role models in the world around you. How do you do that? Ask.
People know who the great leaders are in any organization. Once you know who they are you can use them as role models.
Ask yourself, "How would Art handle this?" Think about how Grace might deal with a situation like the one you're facing. Then, adapt their behavior to fit your style and situation.
Don't stop there. Maybe you haven't spotted a leader who does almost everything the way you want to. Don't let that stop you. Use one leader as a role model for one kind of behavior and another leader for a different behavior.
Using role models for guidance is a start. Maybe one of your role models can become a mentor.
Mentors: Learning One-on-One
According to Greek mythology, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he left his son Telemachus in the care of Mentor. Mentor did an excellent job and gave his name to anyone who becomes your trusted teacher and guide.
A mentor will help you learn about leadership, taking the role that the master took in classic apprentice training systems. But a mentor will also be a guide to the larger world and often will become a good friend.
Many organizations now have mentoring programs that pair up less experienced folks with people who are willing to act as mentors. Many times that doesn't work out because good mentoring relationships depend on chemistry.
Even if your organization has a mentoring program, it's probably a good idea to seek out potential mentors on your own. Here's the kind of person you should look for.
Your potential mentor should be more experienced than you in areas that matter to you. He or she should have an excellent reputation.
Your potential mentor should be a master of the organization as well as leadership. A great mentor will also become your advocate, booster and sponsor.
Your potential mentor should be able to explain things well. That's important. Not everyone who can do something well can explain the details to others.
You and your potential mentor should have a comfortable chemistry. There's no way to figure out in advance if this will happen, so make your approach and see how things work out.
A Framework for Learning
The best apprenticeship programs combine formal learning with learning from the masters and learning on the job. There are a number of books and training programs that will help you sort out the lessons from your learning and develop new skills in a safe environment.
If you work for a large organization, take advantage of the training they have to offer. Look beyond training in "leadership" skills and try to identify any skills that will help you do your job better.
Look beyond your own organization, too. There are lots of classes in leadership and related disciplines at educational institutions. There are public seminars put on by the chamber of commerce. And trade and professional associations offer training and education of all kinds.
Read a lot. Find books on leadership, management and supervision. You may find one or two that will give you the structure for your learning.
Don't just read books on the topic of leadership. Read history and biography that tell you about leaders of the past and present.
Trial and Feedback
Reading and courses are not enough. Leadership only happens in a group and it only happens when you do something. Learning leadership is not like learning history. It's more like learning to ride a bicycle, complete with falls and scrapes.
You'll learn your leadership trade more effectively if you critique your own leadership performance. I suggest getting a notebook and keeping a record of what you do and the results you get.
If you talk to someone who works for you about their performance, make a record of what you did and what happened. Review your notebook from time to time and use it as a guide to changed behavior, learning and development.
The fact is that if you're responsible for the performance of a group, then you're a leader. You have no choice because people will treat you like a leader. The only question left is what kind of leader you'll become.
To become the best leader you can, treat leadership like an apprentice trade. Learn your craft in every way you can.
Find good role models and emulate their actions. Find a mentor and learn the lessons he or she has to teach. Develop a framework so you can get the most out of your learning. Finally, act and critique in an unending cycle of leadership improvement.