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Build leadership capacity from within

Written by: Linda Ginzel
Published on: Aug 17, 2020

Given that I’ve worked as a business school professor teaching executives for the last 30 years, one might suppose I could make a list of qualities all leaders should demonstrate.

Instead, when asked to speak to a group of women in medicine about becoming leaders in their profession, my response is, “The first thing to do is dismiss all the myths about leadership in the medical community. Throw away the impression that a leader looks a certain way, is a certain gender, has a certain degree, is a certain age, or behaves in a certain manner. When you think a leader has to fit certain parameters, you limit your ability to lead.”

In my workbook, Choosing Leadership, I recommend we discard the word “leader” all together. Instead, we should focus on the verb “lead.” I prefer to see leading as action and leadership as something demonstrated by individuals engaged in finding ways to champion a better tomorrow.

To increase your capacity to do this, I recommend exploring a few simple activities designed to help you understand your own strengths, tap into your personal courage, develop leadership capital, and become wiser, younger. You are never going to be younger than you are today, but you can be wiser tomorrow. It doesn’t happen by chance, though. You have to work on it.

Start with writing down your earliest leadership story. Go beyond experiences such as becoming class president. Thinking about when you have engaged in leadership behavior, small and large—those are the ways you have taken steps into the unknowable future. Next, write down your most recent leadership story. Can you find a common thread? When you do, you are articulating your personal take on leadership.

From there, write out what is called your zero draft leadership definition. I say zero draft because this is simply an invitation to brainstorm in writing. Throw out default definitions and preconceived notions. Your definition of leadership reflects you, and your zero draft is a place to start. It is not fully-formed. In fact, it will evolve as you continue to understand yourself and the ways and times you have had the courage to lead.

Compare this to the times when you see yourself firmly grounded in the present, not envisioning the future. I think of this like being on a journey and needing both a map and a compass. A map is useful when the terrain has been charted. A compass gives you a sense of direction. This is the difference between managing and leading. We all do both in our lives.

As you explore these activities through writing down your thoughts and reflections in a journal or in the Choosing Leadership workbook, you’ll begin to grow your own point of view about leadership. This is important. Your perspective will evolve with experience and understanding of your own identity. You determine what matters most to you. As my friend, Dr. Joon K. Shim, Assistant Professor of Surgery at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine said so eloquently, “Writing is thinking made visible.” If you don’t write down your ideas, they don’t exist. Once an idea exists, it becomes data that you can use to find the pearls of wisdom in your own experience.

Leadership development is all about personal responsibility. As a social psychologist, I believe building leadership skills is essentially a process of self-discovery. I want to help each individual uncover, articulate, and understand his or her own definitions of leading, managing, and even following. Through this process, you gain leadership capital and the capacity to choose to lead, manage, or follow, depending on the situation and your role in it.

As you develop leadership capital, you become stronger inside. It’s like a skyscraper. Architects and engineers had to understand that if they built from a solid internal core, then their buildings could soar toward the sky.

The same is true for you. Your structural integrity determines how high you can go. For people practicing medicine, there’s so much pressure, and there are so many demands. How do you build resilience? Build from within. I suggest that if you are strong inside, you can face what comes from outside.






Linda Ginzel is Clinical Professor of Managerial Psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and founder of its Customized Executive Education program. Leveraging her education in experimental social psychology, she teaches MBA students and corporate executives the value of self-understanding and collective wisdom in the workplace to elevate personal capacity in all areas of life.

Ginzel earned her PhD in social psychology from Princeton University and served on the faculty at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, before joining the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago in 1992.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Ginzel a President's Service Award. She is also the cofounder of founder of Kids In Danger (KID) dedicated to protecting children by fighting for product safety.

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