If I asked you to list some characteristics of great leaders, what would you say? Do words like courage, tenacity, compassion, vision, drive, authenticity, determination, empathy, understanding, and results-focused come to mind?
Those are all great characteristics of leadership, but how does one become a better leader? More specifically, what should emerging leaders in the independent insurance agency channel focus on to prepare themselves to move their organizations and our industry forward?
It’s no secret that our business has been very well served through the years with solid leadership, but we’re seeing a growing leadership gap develop. Current industry leaders are continuing to transition into their next phase of life. And younger folks are taking notice. An up-and-coming insurance leader recently asked me a very important question: “What are some of the things that I should be doing to prepare and develop myself to become a better leader?”
This got me thinking about what emerging leaders should focus on to improve their leadership ability. After writing down a page full of ideas, I settled on three key areas and one key word: intentionality.
Before I dive into three ways you can become an intentional leader, it’s important to understand the true meaning of leadership. Too many people have the admittedly common misconception that leadership is a position that is appointed or awarded. I’d argue that leadership is not a destination. Rather, it’s an action. Your position, title, or even experience does not determine your leadership ability or performance.
The best definition I have heard on leadership comes from author and speaker John C. Maxwell, who states that leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. If leadership is influence, how do you know if you have influence? The best indication is in your followers. There is an old proverb that says, “He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.”
Who is following you? Are they going where you want them to go or are they wandering off in their own direction?
As an emerging leader, you can influence others from any position at any time. The question is whether you will be intentional about increasing your influence to become a better leader. You don’t arrive at a leadership position and then learn how to lead. You learn how to lead so you earn the right to be in a leadership position.
So how can emerging leaders grow their leadership skills? I want to highlight three ways to get started today.
Lead yourself first—In my early days as an insurance professional, I wanted to learn how to effectively lead my prospects, my clients, and my team members. However, I had one major problem: I didn’t even know how to lead myself.
My first business mentor was the late speaker and author Jim Rohn. I remember listening to an audio recording years ago, when I first heard Jim say, “If you work hard at your job, you can make a living; if you work hard on yourself, you can make a fortune.”
While there is no doubt that job skill development is crucial for any emerging insurance industry leader, there is no more important investment than the one you make in yourself.
Leadership starts with you. Before you can lead anyone else, you must first be able to lead yourself. If you wouldn’t follow yourself, why should anyone else?
When I conduct live trainings, I often demonstrate the power of self-leadership with a couple of drinking glasses. In the first example, I try to pour an empty glass into another empty glass. Too often, leaders try to serve others without filling their own cup. It simply doesn’t work.
In the second example, I pour water into the first drinking glass. The water represents self-leadership through personal and professional growth. When you begin to grow yourself, you can then more effectively grow those around you. The great thing about self-leadership is that it is never ending. You can always reach for more water to fill your cup, but you must be thirsty. And you must be intentional.
One of the top characteristics I see in common among the best leaders is that they are lifelong learners. No matter what they have learned and what they know already, the most successful leaders are always hungry to learn and grow more.
Influential leaders understand that leadership is a process, not an event. They don’t attend one workshop or take one class and suddenly think they have arrived at the destination. In fact, the more top leaders learn, the more they realize how much more there is to learn. Just like interest in your bank account, leadership skill compounds.
Self-leadership requires reflection and self-awareness. As I have often heard my mentor and Sitkins Group CEO Roger Sitkins say, “All progress begins by telling the truth.”
Where in your life and business do you need to grow and improve? What personal and professional skills do you need to develop?
The bottom line is that the most challenging person you will ever lead is you. Lead the person in the mirror with excellence first, and you will soon begin to see others follow you as well.
Consistently add value to others—To be an intentional leader, you must have a laser focus on others. Great leaders understand that the purpose of leadership is centered on one thing: to add value to others. Every interaction you have with another human being is an opportunity to add value. Don’t minimize the importance of that opportunity.
To become a person who consistently brings something extra to others, you must learn to get over yourself. We all have our own agendas, but the great leaders see and act on behalf of others.
As an emerging independent agency leader, it’s vital to understand that you are not in the insurance business and serving people. You are in the people business, providing insurance solutions.
You get to choose to whom and how you will add value. As Stephen Covey states, “In every interaction, you are either making emotional deposits or withdrawals.” If you make enough deposits, you will become rich. By the same token, if you make too many withdrawals, eventually you will go bankrupt.
All of the persons with whom you build relationships are asking themselves three questions about you.
If a person cannot answer “yes” to all three of those questions, you will never be able to connect with and lead them at a high level. Consistently adding value to others is a choice that you get to make every day. Choose wisely.
Place yourself in a growth environment—To grow into a strong leader yourself, you must intentionally place yourself in a growth environment. Just like a plant can’t grow without the right soil, air, and a conducive climate, you will never grow into an influential leader planted in the wrong surroundings.
Speaker, author, and insurance agent Charlie “Tremendous” Jones said, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the books you read and the people you meet.” He nailed it. Among the most critical success factors for any emerging leader is determining what you feed your mind and with whom you associate. Great leaders are intentional about the content they consume and the people with whom they spend their time.
What are you feeding your mind every day? Are you seeking out books, podcasts, videos, and workshops filled with positive and informative material? What you feed your mind matters. The knowledge and insight you gain today translates in the outcomes and results you see later. There is truth in the saying “garbage in, garbage out.”
The same is true with people. To grow and develop into a better leader, you may be faced with some difficult relationship decisions. The friends you have today may not be the friends you have tomorrow, if you want to become a better leader.
Successful leaders surround themselves with others who make them think bigger, work harder, and provide encouragement and accountability.
Ask yourself some important relationship questions. Who are you spending the most time with? Are these people helping you grow or holding your back? What relationships do you need to reduce or eliminate and what relationships do you need to increase in quantity and quality?
Your environment is crucial for your leadership development. Find nutrient rich soil, clean air, and the right climate to thrive.
The bottom line
As an emerging leader, you get to choose the path you want to take. Many professionals who could become leaders tend to choose the path of least resistance. And their results show.
I challenge you to take the path of intentionality. Be intentional on leading yourself with excellence. Be intentional on consistently adding value to others. Be intentional on placing yourself in a rich growth environment.
The independent insurance agency channel is hungry for new and influential leaders. Why not be one of them?
Brent Kelly is an executive coach and speaker with the Sitkins Group. His focus is to help agencies Sell More, Retain More and Earn More through The Sitkins Network™, a territorial exclusive network of high-performing agencies, and The Better Way Agency, a web-based training program that shows agency owners ways to make significant improvements in all areas of the agency. To learn more, please visit www.sitkins.com and follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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