The Best Leadership Education You Can Get for Free

January 18, 2016

Just about all of us are Monday morning quarterbacks when it comes to leadership. Everyone has an opinion. But how grounded are those opinions, especially if we’ve never been there before?

Here’s the thing: if you wait until you receive a leadership role to get a leadership education, you may not last long. We all need a leadership development plan that includes work experiences, formal training, networking and self-study. But don’t overlook the easiest, cheapest and most accessible one of all: observation.

Here are eight observations to make of the leaders around you.

Pay Attention Sign

How They Make Decisions

You can tell a lot about a leader by the decisions he makes – or doesn’t make, including timing and criteria. One of the biggest frustrations to senior management is middle management who won’t make the tough decisions at their level. When observing, realize you don’t have access to all the same information, but can still learn a lot.

How They Communicate with Their Teams

Engagement studies reveal that the majority of organizations have a “communication problem” – mostly in the consistency and cascading of high-level messages. Good leaders over-communicate what is truly important. And take special note of what they decline to communicate publicly.

How They Organize Their Time & Priorities

A leader’s time is of great value. It’s a finite resource that must accommodate a growing number of responsibilities. Observe the systems they use to stay on top of everything. Pay special attention to what they say “no” to.

How They Respond to Crises and Criticism

When Robert Mueller was confirmed as the Director of the FBI, it wasn’t because of his special ability to respond to crises. He specialized in white collar crime. But one week later the World Trade Center was hit and Mueller became a full-time crisis manager. The leaders around you may not have to manage a catastrophe, but pay attention to the way they handle disruptions to their plans – and the public response they receive.

How Engaged Their People Are

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that employees prefer to work for strong leaders. It’s not because it’s easier – many times times it’s not. Followers will usually work harder and contribute more for a leader they respect. “A” leaders attract “A” followers who are engaged in the work, with the organization and with each other.

How Many Leaders They Produce

Leaders grow on trees. The best leaders develop and produce more leaders who in turn produce more. This may be most clearly seen in professional football “coaching trees,” where nearly every successful coach cut his teeth under a previous successful coach. Figure out which leaders in your leadership community have the best reputation for developing talent – and take note of their approach.

What Results They Get

Execution is the bottom line of leadership effectiveness. Without it, leaders lose their authority, regardless of the excuses. It’s a tough business. Always take note of the results the leaders around you achieve – especially if there are significant challenges. It’s easy to win when all the momentum is on your side.

The Mistakes They Make

This one is perhaps the most obvious and insightful. Every mistake of someone else’s you learn from, you potentially avoid making yourself.

You’ve probably realized by now that not all the examples around you are good ones. A failure by one leader could mean you receive a new assignment before you’re ready for it. Don’t wait until that happens to build your leadership competency. Start taking notes today.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.