Unless you were picked as captain of the kickball team in grade school, the ramp to leadership can seem daunting. It can feel like there might be a Leadership Fairy out there sprinkling leadership dust on the chosen few who are deemed up to the standard. Perhaps there is a minimum height requirement or a standard for fluency in astrophysics before someone is blessed with a smattering of leadership dust. This is all just conjured up in your head. This “I am not worthy enough to lead” thinking.
Truth is there are all kinds of ways that you are already a leader in your life. You just need to uncover it. You don’t need to be a CEO to be a leader. In fact, you don’t even need some impressive title at all to be a leader. You just need to exhibit some leadership attributes in different areas – large or small – of your life. The real secret is to acknowledge to yourself that you are a leader and to own it.
Here are 6 surprising truths to leadership:
- It’s not all about the knowledge you have. Organizations make the error of promoting subject matter experts into leadership positions when all they really want to do is work on a project and hone their craft. Knowledge alone will not help you lead. As a client told me yesterday, you need to know where to go to find the answer but you do not need to be Chief Answerer to be a good leader. In fact, a manager (as opposed to a leader) who has all the answers in not likely to be a very good coach because they won’t encourage collaboration. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a lifelong learner but don’t let not knowing all the answers hold you back from being a leader. It’s about illuminating pathways not spouting facts.
- It’s not about the level in the organization where you sit. You can make any fancy title you want like “Assistant Director of Global Widget Development and Logistics.” That will not make you a leader. You can have 40 direct reports and that won’t make you a leader. It does make you a manager. But a leader? I can’t tell you how many managers have worried about an org chart and where they are on it. Moving a box on an org chart does not suddenly make you a leader.
- Ignite the eagerness in others. Leaders are catalysts. They know the sweet spot to get others to buy in. They can describe the vision so that everyone else “sees” it. As Paul Vitale wrote, “By radiating positive energy, assessing and defining reality, outlining priorities, and incorporating alternative points of view, effective leaders compose unique designs that declare, ‘When nothing is certain, anything is possible.'” It might be being able to articulate your vision of a birthday party or a new spreadsheet. Be able to ignite others.
- Share thoughts, feelings and rationale. This is a tenet of DDI’s Essentials of Leadership. This can be difficult for men in particular. A leader who shares their feelings says, “I’m uncomfortable putting you on this project because there were several deadlines you missed last time.” On the other hand, a manager will gloss over past failures and find an excuse not to put them on the project. A leader is transparent. There aren’t any secrets. And they share both the positive and negative. “You did so well on that last team, they’d like you to lead the next one.” Whereas a manager is more top down and buttoned up. Be a leader. Don’t assume your team knows what’s going on. Be sure to share.
- Leaders take care of themselves. They exercise, sleep, connect, read and keep a balance throughout the day. There might be an emergency that takes them off the path but because they take care of themselves physically, they can handle the crisis. As Dave Ulrich said in an HBR interview, “Physical: take care of myself– nutrition, exercise, sleep. The psychologists say the best cure for depression is take care of your body.” If you are living on Red Bull and Oreos, sleeping 5 hours a night and the only exercise you are getting is going to the fridge for a beer, you won’t a good leader. Take care of yourself.
- Build a network of people. It can be isolating to be at the top of an organization or in a sensitive position like Human Resources. As Ulrich said, “I have a best friend at work. Build a network of people I can rely on, who care about me as a person, not just about me and my job.” Your organization or team may be too small to be able to feasibly develop friendships. Then go outside. Make sure you have social support.
Don’t wait for the fairy dust either. Find that spot where you can serve others and start leading. I remember leading hikes up a mountain at the ripe old age of fifteen. I got at the front of the line and started leading. Inside or outside of an organization, on a service project or leading your kids. We all have leadership opportunities. Take them. Find your way to lead.