[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don't see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you'll get more value than reading just this post.]
Learning leadership and developing leadership skills isn’t like learning history or any other academic subject.
Learning leadership and developing leadership skills means learning about yourself and other people, understanding your and their motivations, changing how you view the world, for starters. Well, you can learn to lead without those things, but you’ll limit yourself without them.
While learning math or a new language may teach you new knowledge and skills, it’s hard to say they change you as a person. I learned a lot of physics, and I think I became more knowledgeable and learned new skills, but I wouldn’t say it changed me. Certainly I changed over the eight years I focused on it, but not directly from the material; just from living eight years.
I mention academic subjects to contrast the feelings from challenging yourself academically as from challenging yourself in developing leadership. Academic challenges are external. They take time and attention. Leadership challenges are internal. They require courage and faith in yourself. You have to overcome emotional challenges, not just rational ones.
It’s hard to avoid saying learning leadership changes you as a person. I don’t think other fields do, or not nearly on the same scale.
When I coach students and clients I try to prepare them for the emotional challenges they will face. It’s easy when sitting in a room with a coach, calmly reviewing a report, to say when faced with discouragement and resistance from yourself and others that you’ll just power through the challenges. When you’re in a difficult situation, you’re scared or feeling emotional punishment, and you don’t know if you can make it, letting go of your goals, even ones you rationally know you can achieve, starts feeling enticing.
(Psychologists study this effect — so-called empathy gaps. I’ll write more about them soon. For now, I’ll mention some quotes I often list as examples of discouraging thoughts that hit you when you change yourself that you have to overcome or find new ways of viewing (another upcoming post, or rather series of upcoming posts).)
Learning to overcome emotional challenges — discouragement, frustration, anxiety, fear, impatience, etc — consistently and without too much emotional punishment takes practice. Coaching helps. Motivation through challenges is one of a coach’s main roles — think of sports coaches in particular.
Another main way to overcome them is to foresee them so they don’t blindside you, so that with practice you approach them prepared.
I’m sure you’ve said a few of these before.
- “I’ve been working at this for six months and I still can’t get it. I should just give up.”
- “I’m worse off now than before I started. I should just give up.”
- “I feel fake.”
- “Why am I doing this? Whatever reason I had, I can’t remember it now.”
- “I should understand this challenge completely before trying to overcome it. I’ll start later.”
- “People think I’m weird for doing this.”
- “What’s the point? It won’t work.”
- “I’m just not the type of person to do that.”
- “I can’t do it.”
- “I have to pay rent. This isn’t helping me pay rent. I’ll stick with what I know.”
- “What if I fail?”
- “I’ve gotten this far without this. I don’t really need it.”
Thoughts like this, when you’re unprepared and have no outside support, debilitate and discourage you. But everyone who has gotten through them also faced them.
I try, as a coach, to help people foresee these challenges so they know, at least in principle, how to handle them. I say “in principle” because until you’ve faced them a few times, intellectually knowing about them doesn’t compare with emotionally handling them.