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Becoming a Competent Leader

"If you want to know if you're a leader, look behind you and see if you have followers". I read that quote yesterday while browsing through articles on my LinkedIn home page. I can't remember who it was attributed to and don't remember much of the article but that quote stuck. It's a great quote: simple, catchy and easy to apply.

But is it true?

What makes someone a leader, and better yet how can you evaluate not just whether you're a leader but a good leader?

Throughout history we've had all types of leaders - some who've led their countrymen to slaughter innocent thousands; others who got their followers to commit mass suicide; while still others milked their followers dry for personal financial gain.

How do I ensure that I am a good and competent leader?

Personally I have struggled with this question. As I get older, get assigned more responsibility, and have more people dependent on me to lead them - I need to ensure that I not only lead but lead well. This need has become even more apparent since I founded the Early Birds Toastmasters club in 2013. It would be easy to quantify the growth of the club using member numbers ( a respectable 32)  but I have come to realize that real growth would be if those members are meeting the objectives and goals that brought them to toastmasters.

Toastmasters has a very defined structure in terms of what you can achieve with the organization and how to achieve it. When you join, you are assigned two sets of manuals: one for communication and one for leadership. Each manual has projects designed to help you develop specific aspects of communication and leadership respectively, and the new member is supposed to undertake these projects and have their performance evaluated by another member.

The most curious thing about Toastmasters is that, how much time you take to complete your projects is entirely dependent on you. You can breeze through the manuals in one year or take five years as I did.

The biggest challenge however is not that one can take a long time to complete the manuals, but rather the manual on leadership is rarely taken as seriously. Since evaluations are written and not oral, most members neglect to properly prepare for the project, forget to carry their manuals to the meeting for evaluation, and result to seeking the written evaluation many days after they have undertaken the project. I was no exception, and committed all the above infractions in order to ensure that I complete the manual and get my certificate of "Competent Leader".

But was I really going to be a competent leader?

It seems that fate thought otherwise. As I undertook my final leadership project - a grueling task of chairing a committee with over forty people for the Toastmasters Speech Fair & Annual Dinner - my manual that I had been filling out for five years simply disappeared. It happened when I had been traveling a lot, and I kept thinking that it would turn up in one of my several offices or 'homes' at that time, but it was not to be. After three months, I had to concede that the manual was well and truly gone.

What to do?

Without the manual, I had no way of knowing what roles I had undertaken. I had no way of proving that I had met the requirements as evaluations were noted on the manual. I had no way of successfully lodging for the award of Competent Leader with Toastmasters International.

My mentor, a toastmaster of over thirteen years experience, recommended that I could redo the projects. I was aghast. Another five years! No way! But as my protestations faded away with time and more sober thought I began warming up to the idea. With focus, deliberate intention and commitment it was possible to undertake the projects in 10 months.

The truth is that I had never really done it that well the first time round: jumping from project to project and using the manual more as a checklist than a guide. But even more importantly than me getting my award, by redoing the projects I had a chance to ensure that the Early Bird members avoided making the same mistakes that I had made.


Here it was, my chance to become a competent leader while becoming a Competent Leader. Dear readers, with this blog post I mark the first of many that I hope will also help you to become competent leaders. I will chronicle my journey towards attaining the Toastmasters International award of Competent Leader by June 2015; the lessons I learn along the way; and the strategy and techniques I use to achieve my goal. I welcome your comments and ideas as I find my way.


Reflective thoughts! Calls for self assessment on the rationale for engagement. Whether it's to tick a check box or be the authentic representation.
Reflective piece. Calls for self assessment and introspection on objectives. Key question being if to tick a check box or be the authentic representation.
anthony wangondu said…
Harry, I am horrified about the loss of your manual (I have just checked my drawer to confirm my manuals are intact!) and I feel that blow! Leadership, as you rightly allude, is mostly learnt 'on the job' and you commitment to re-do the CL is inspirational. Best wishes!
Harry Karanja said…
I'm happy to announce that I finished my CL manual two months ahead of schedule.

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