Students shouldn't wait to develop leadership skills

A lot of supervisors are practicing leadership without benefit of training or development. However, there's no need to wait to be "given" leadership training.

I found myself agreeing out loud with a Harvard Business Review blog by Jack Zenger, who shared an interesting twist on the question: With all that's spent on leadership development, why don't we have better leaders?

Zenger says one reason is we wait too long to develop leadership skills. Drawing from comprehensive data, Zenger found that 42 is the average age at which individuals receive leadership training. Less than 10% under the age of 30 are provided it. Yet, the average age of supervisors in the data set was 33. Bottom line: a lot of supervisors are practicing leadership without benefit of training or development.  

Zenger's alarmed by this and so am I. However, there's no need to wait to be “given” leadership training. We tell our students who aspire to leadership not to wait, but to go get some. And there are at least two ways to do so.  

First, take advantage of opportunity structures – university and community clubs, groups, nonprofits, and professional associations such as the Public Relations Student Society of America or Public Relations Society of America. These organizations are always looking for people to lead projects, run for office, raise funds, or recruit new members. They also facilitate interactions with established leaders in the field.

Second, begin to seriously develop those vital “soft” leadership skills – listening capabilities, cultural awareness, emotional intelligence, and change- and conflict-management skills. One of the most consistent findings in the recent Plank Center Leadership Study is the need for future leaders to improve soft skills to be successful.

Listening, for example, is a skill we take for granted, though most of us are poor listeners with brief attention spans. However, you can learn how to be a better, more active listener in an afternoon. Formal workshops and online development guides can help. So can old-fashioned tools, such as books. The hard work comes in changing bad habits and fully developing your capability to listen. This takes time, but it pays off handsomely in problem solving, conflict resolution, and decision-making.  

So don't wait for others to provide you with leadership development at age 40. Take advantage of opportunity structures and sharpen those soft skills. Go get some.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D. is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals, and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu.

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