Joshua Spodek is an adjunct professor at NYU, leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, columnist for Inc., founder of Spodek Academy, and author of Leadership Step by Step. We recently spoke with Joshua to hear his thoughts on how today’s leaders can improve themselves and their ability to lead companies or teams toward success.
As someone who is well-educated in a variety of disciplines, could you tell us what drew you to the study of leadership?
With a Ph.D. and an MBA, I learned a lot in school. Studying and teaching leadership attracted me because it taught me social and emotional skills, not just intellectual knowledge. Learning traditional subjects may have made me smarter, but leadership helped me improve my life, especially my emotional well-being and relationships.
The more I teach and coach leadership, the more my students and clients inspire me with their achievements through doing the exercises in my book and online courses.
Since you’re one of the relatively few Americans who has visited North Korea, could you tell us whether the portrayal of that country in the media is accurate? What surprised you most about what you saw there?
I should first mention that I have no pretense of having seen most of the country. Foreigners only see what they let you see, which is a propagandistic facade. Still, they can’t hide everything. What surprised me most was how, despite the incredible differences between cultures, people are people. Seeing how they act under very different conditions illustrates what we all share as humans.
As for what was accurate, since I was there for the hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, I saw many people mourning him. I believe their tears were genuine, despite what we know about how he hurt the country. Of course, the people they let us see were the elites in Pyongyang, so they probably didn’t suffer as much.
Which aspects of leadership do your clients struggle with the most?
Putting new skills into practice. Everyone knows what skills they could use: self-awareness, listening, empathy, grit, perseverance, hustle, passion, and so on. We’re swimming in advice on how to create purpose for people we lead, from TED talks and books to magazine articles and everywhere else.
But knowing self-awareness is important doesn’t make anyone self-aware. You can’t read your way to integrity. You have to act. What we lack is specific, actionable instruction on what action to take to develop these skills. Schools don’t teach these things, nor do nearly any managers.
In order to be an effective leader, why is it important first to understand yourself?
Great question! Many people skip over this part.
When we talk about understanding yourself, we don’t mean knowing that you have a skeleton, organs, and other obvious things. We mean understanding your beliefs, emotions, motivations, and more subtle things. If you don’t know your motivations, you can’t control them. That makes you reactive, meaning you’re not in control. Either someone else is, or you’re acting randomly – which is the opposite of leadership.
Is it possible for someone to be an effective leader and still have “fun” while doing it?
As with any active, social, expressive, emotional, performance-based field, like playing a musical instrument, acting, dance, or the military, the more you practice, the more skill you develop.
When you reach mastery, you become fluent. You act with freedom. You discover even more about yourself, which you express with less inhibition. That freedom to express yourself and act as you want is about the most and deepest fun you can have in life. The innocence you gain is like being a child again.
What is your approach when it comes to leaders engaging in conflict resolution?
Resolving conflict is similar to what I consider the core of leadership: to behave and communicate in ways to make others feel comfortable sharing their emotions and motivations, then connecting them to your task so they want to do them.
Resolving conflict means that the task involves someone else with a different goal, which is an external constraint. From a leader’s perspective, you’re still working with people’s emotions to help them reach a goal.
A leader solving an emotional problem with people is like a carpenter solving a problem with wood. Our tools of the trade are our social and emotional skills, which we use like carpenters use saws and drills. We’re still problem-solving, just in a different domain with different tools.
If someone were to say to you, “The only way to learn how to be a good entrepreneur is to try, fail, and repeat,” how might you respond?
I would say, “I agree.” The challenge is to overcome the fears, anxieties, and other inhibitions we’ve developed to protect our vulnerabilities around failure. Just to know the path doesn’t make it easier to get on it. I developed my courses to help people take simple steps to start that path and learn to enjoy it. I wish more people recognized the social and emotional challenges in taking responsibility and initiative.
What skills will the successful leaders of the future have to learn and master?
As I said, people know what skills they need. The challenge is developing them, so I suggest a more important question is, “How can people learn the skills they want?”
I’ve found among seasoned professionals, recent graduates, university students, and even high school students that active, experiential learning from an experienced teacher who knows all three elements of theory, practice, and teaching competency imparts those skills like nothing else. No amount of lecture, case study, videos, research papers, and such will give you passion, vision, and so on.
Could you benefit from leadership coaching? See how John can help you today!