Leadership is a profession, not a position

Though many people associate leadership with particular roles, it is actually a mindset independent of position, according Mike Harbour, the president and founder of Harbour Resources, a leadership consulting, training and talent management firm based in Little Rock, Ark.

Mr. Harbour spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about what it means to be a professional leader and how people can develop their leadership skills.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What does it mean to consider leadership as a profession and not a position?

Mike Harbour: Professionals get paid for their growth and preparation. They get paid for their knowledge and what they produce. Unfortunately many people step into a leadership role and they've never grown their leadership skill or never studied the topic of leadership. In healthcare this is a huge problem, because hospitals and healthcare companies do a great job of promoting internally — they'll promote a nurse or pharmacist or physical therapist, or a technician who is great at what they do, but who never studied leadership. The difference between a positional leader and a professional leader is someone who studies leadership and the skill of leadership, communication and team building. Positional leaders are only in it for the paycheck, and you create paycheck employees. Professionals grow into and in the position and create an environment of highly engaged employees.

Q: How can people who don't currently have leadership responsibilities cultivate the skills necessary to lead?

MH: Often, those who are promoted into leadership roles have never studied the topic of leadership, especially in healthcare. They went to school to be a technician of some sort, but the good news is leadership can be learned while sitting at your desk. Leadership is one of those skills that can be learned no matter where you are, especially with books and the internet. You don't have to do it formally, but eventually you have to apply what you learn. There's a difference between the knowledge of leadership and the wisdom of leadership; wisdom is applied knowledge. You can read the book, you can study the idea, you can watch the videos, but you have to go apply and practice it. That's where most people have trouble; they study, but they never apply it. Then you have to practice it more than one or two times to get good at it.

Leadership is action, not position. It's important to volunteer for opportunities to lead. These could be in your church, could be coaching a youth sports program where you practice leadership, could be volunteering in a professional association. You need to look for opportunities to lead in an informal setting where people don't necessarily report to you and you don't hire or fire people, but where you can practice these newfound skills. It's about stepping up when no one else will. There are a lot of people who will sit around and wait for someone else to volunteer, but leadership is action. Look for opportunities to lead and looking for new challenges that will help you expand and practice those skills you've learned about.

Leadership is 100 percent between the ears. It begins with the way we think about leading others. If I'm going to lead you, I have to think about who you are as an individual and how I can best influence you. Everyone needs to be led differently, so leadership begins in the mind.

Q: What are the qualities of a professional leader?

MH: The first quality is selflessness. Leaders are selfless in their growth by growing for others, for the greater vision of the organization and for the future. They're not being selfish, not saying, "OK, I'm doing this for me. What can I get out of this?"

The second quality is drive to succeed. They don't settle for the status quo. Positional leaders settle, they step into position and say this is the way we've always done it I don't want to rock the boat. But professional leaders are driven to do something better, they're driven toward excellence, toward a higher level of success. They look past the status quo and ask every day how they can make their team better, help their teammates grow and  produce more at a higher quality.

All professional leaders are learners, they're not know-it-alls. The best way to learn is go try what you read or studied. Most of the things I've learned I've learned by doing and making mistakes. It's all about evaluated experience. Experience isn't the best teacher — evaluated experience is the best teacher. Sit and evaluate an experience. Think about what you did well and what you can improve. That's when you learn. Know-it-all leaders have experiences, but never evaluate themselves.

The fourth quality is passion. When I think about healthcare, I've seen a lot of organizations with leaders in a leadership role, but no passion for the job. They just show up and do the bare minimum. When I think about professional leaders, I see someone who's passionate about their work. They come to work on fire every day, passionate about the vision of healthcare, the goals of the organization and the goals of the team. They're not just trying to get to the end of the day. Passionate leaders look forward to Monday, not Friday.

Q: What kinds of qualities does a good leader exhibit when they're still a follower?

MH: You have to be a good follower to be a good leader. I learned to follow good leaders by asking questions, sitting under their arms and watching what they do, how they do it and why they do it. Good followers ask questions and seek out more responsibility. Typically, those people will make good leaders. But they have to be willing to grow. I'm always concerned about a follower who wants to be in a position because they want to make more money, they want to tell people what to do or they're worried about the next paycheck or title. Those are ones that need to be developed a lot more before they're promoted, and you create a disengaged team because they were in it for themselves and not the team.

Q: What do leaders need to do to ensure they are growing and developing?

MH: Never arrive. You can never settle. I've personally had this experience in my own life; I've set a goal, achieved that goal and stopped. What I've learned is to never set achievement goals, set growth goals. If you're always growing, you're always going to be achieving. That doesn't mean that we don't have performance indicators to show our growth.

We also always need mentors in our life. A mentor is someone who's ahead of where we are, who has some experience we don't have. They don't have to be in our profession, but just someone who can guide us and give us some advice. They've learned along the way, they've had some bumps and bruises, and if I can learn from someone else's mistakes and experiences, it'll help me on my own path.

We live in a world where everything is raging along at the speed of light, so if you can learn from other people faster, that means you can get better faster. To make sure you're growing and developing, you also need a coach. A mentor is someone who does it for fun; a coach is someone you pay. Most of us only live up to 10 percent of our potential, but coaches get more of our potential out of us.

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