I fondly remember growing up and helping my father carry his toolboxes to various jobs. My father ran a side business where he repaired and installed furnaces, air conditioners, hot water tanks, etc. He also was called upon by folks who needed miscellaneous repairs such as leaking faucets, damaged drains, and even the occasional “Can you fix my car?” scenario. Although my father was a senior executive at a large steel mill, he had a diverse mechanical mind, and could fix (or at least try to fix) just about anything.
And while some would say these attributes are a lost art these days, I can vividly remember the toolboxes my father had at his disposal. He had one specifically designed for plumbing. Another for pipe fitting. Another for electrical and one for tin bending. My father even had a toolbox filled with miscellaneous tools. He knew the job for which each toolbox was assembled, and exactly what was in each one.
When the need arose, my father would instruct me to load the car with the specific toolbox needed. Rarely would he ask me to put the plumbing toolbox in the car when he was going to fix an electrical problem. In the same way, he would not have me carry the tin-bending toolbox (which was heavy and still haunts me with the thoughts of crushed fingers) to a job that was for a leaking pipe under a vanity. The science behind my father’s toolboxes was intentional and strategic.
If we examine the art of effective leadership, or leaders, we see that they also carry a variety of “toolboxes”. The tools placed in these leadership toolboxes are accumulated over years, and are used with precision. The responsibility of amassing these leadership tools falls on the leader. The tools can be gained through knowledge and experience, either through formal or informal means. Just like a successful mechanic, the more tools in the toolbox, the higher the possibility the situation at hand will be adequately confronted. Leaders with very few, or no tools in their toolboxes, will find that when specific needs arise, they will ultimately fail.
While the possibilities of the leadership toolbox is vast, it is essential that leaders pick and choose what tools they want to incorporate in their toolbox carefully. In most cases, these tools will be related to their specific job functions, professional aspirations, or passions. Smart leaders know their tools, know how they function, and have the astute ability to quickly – and diligently – use them when needed. Let’s dive into three leadership toolboxes that every 21st-century leader should have on hand.
Leadership Toolbox #1: The People Toolbox
Someone once said that “military leaders sacrifice themselves for others, while organizational leaders sacrifice others for themselves.” Many organizations, however, have publically defied this traditional organizational norm and have placed employees above customers. We are not going to elaborate on that philosophy, however, know that by creating a culture of “employees first”, the outcome is more productivity and creativity, higher employee engagement, and increased customer satisfaction. The People Toolbox should therefore be filled with tools related to effective communications, development, productive conflict, rapport building, interpersonal skills, serving others, emotional intelligence, teambuilding, feedback, and empathy.
Leadership Toolbox #2: The Strategic Toolbox
To quote Warren G. Bennis: “Leadership is the ability to translate vision into reality.” Leaders have the responsibility to envision the future and lead others toward goals – thus, strategic leadership. This, however, is no easy task – especially in an environment where technological advances continue to shorten the spectrum of strategic planning and execution.
According to a recent Forbes Magazine article, “research has shown that only 10% of leaders are classified as strategic leaders.” What traditionally defined strategic planning as a long-range process over several years, has now transformed such processes over as little as a year or even just months. Leaders do not have the luxury to “think ahead” for several years – their mindset must be on critical, short-term, strategic objectives that compliment, or at very least accommodate, environmental variations and organizational capabilities. The Strategic Toolbox should encompass such tools as visionary thought processes, foresight, strategic planning, strategic execution, transformational knowledge, courage to challenge the status quo, fearlessness of failure, understanding the complex relationship between the organization and its environment, taking decisive action through ambiguity, complexity, and chaos, and “building commitment to the organization’s strategic direction by inviting others into the strategic process, forging relationships inside and outside the organization, and navigating the political landscape.”
Leadership Toolbox #3: The Individual Toolbox
The Individual Toolbox holds those tools essential to every leader’s success. Unfortunately, these tools are sometimes the most difficult to accrue. Nevertheless, those in leadership positions who find it difficult to amass these attributes will find that building a mentorship or coaching inner circle will assist in developing the skills needed to have them available when needed. Seek out those who have been there, have experienced circumstances, and who can transmit their experiential realities. In a world of technology, it is not hard to embrace others’ expertise and formulate your own wisdom. The Individual Toolbox embraces those intangible tools associated with being inspirational, transformational, demonstrating vulnerability, trustworthiness, creativity, commitment, selflessness, passion, innovation, transparency, confidence, patience, integrity, stoicism, authenticity, and empowering.
Don’t be mistaken and think that the leadership toolbox is simply a “bag of tricks” that leaders possess by reading a few articles, listening to a few TED Talks, or attending a one-day conference on management skills. Far from it! The leadership toolbox is a powerful collection of characteristics, unique to each leader, developed and assembled over time and with much purpose and passion. Every leader has essential toolboxes and tools at their disposal. How and when to use them are dictated by the given situations that arise, the environment that exists, or the culture they have created.
The leadership toolbox and tools are ever-changing, and leaders understand that the essential part of leadership success is to maintain knowledge and wisdom of these tools, their applications, and their consequences. When leaders relinquish seeking new leadership tools and merely become stagnant in their approaches and strategies toward improvement, the complacent actions will dictate individual and organizational failure.
I did not realize then – carrying those heavy toolboxes for my father – the implications they would have on my life as a person and leader. However, what I do now know is that successful leaders know how to obtain the correct tools, when to use them, and how to use them.
What’s in your leadership toolbox? Take some time to reflect. After all, only then will great, effective leadership emerge.