For many years, I have given presentations at professional conferences. I connect with leaders all levels. It is invigorating to have rich discussions with diverse professionals in the special atmosphere of a conference. After my presentations, I stay in the conference room to speak privately with some of the attendees who come up to me. Here is one of the most asked questions: “When can I start being a leader?” It is asked by entry-level professionals, supervisors and even seasoned managers.
As they say, now is as good a time as any. Seriously, even in the most junior positions, you can start being a leader. Admittedly, as an entry-level employee, you may not have anyone you are responsible to lead. Nonetheless, you can be a leader. And demonstrating leadership will lead to leadership positions.
My definition of leadership is “accomplishing goals through other people”. You aren’t accomplishing the goal by yourself; you are leading others to accomplish it. Therefore, leadership is about building constructive and productive relationships.
Many people think of leaders in archetypes: generals, presidents, CEOs, sports stars and the like. It is true that these are leaders. However, the vast majority of leaders do not fit into these types. They are everyday people who do things that inspire other people to follow them. In your neighborhood, they are little league coaches, PTO volunteers, and community organizers. At work, they are throughout the organization.
At the highest levels of the organization, leadership skills are used on a grand scale. The same skills are used at lower levels, but on a proportionately smaller scale. Some basic leadership skills can be used all the time at any level in the organization. The use of these skills sets you apart as a leader.
The first, and potentially most important leadership skill, is listening. You heard me correctly: listening! Listening seems like an innate skill – we all have ears — but it is one that needs to be finely honed. Listening requires your full attention. There can be no “multi-tasking” while listening. First you listen, then you ask questions and get clarifications. Last, you summarize what you heard to be sure you received the correct message and to let them know you were listening. When people feel they are being heard, it creates an emotional connection. When you listen, you find out what needs to be done and what people’s motivations and perspectives are. Only after listening should you speak.
It is near impossible be a leader if people do not trust you. Be honest in your dealings with everyone around you, and I mean everyone. The “little” people do the yeomen’s work in accomplishing goals. If you do not treat them honestly, your goals and your leadership brand will suffer.
You should try to put yourself in others’ shoes — see the situation from their perspective. Try to discover their motivations. Convey facts and arguments using their language and from the perspective. Acknowledge your audience’s situation. The whole idea is to impart information, ideas and reasoning so others understand. Some people feel that being empathetic is being a pushover. It is not. You are acknowledging their story, not altering yours.
The time to make a friend is not when you need one. Find opportunities to solidify existing relationships and create new ones with peers in your area, throughout the organization, and in your industry. I heard someone say “leadership is a contact sport”. He meant that you need to have a lot of interactions to be a leader. You must build the relationships.
A great relationship to cultivate is with a mentor. If your organization does not have a formal mentor program, ask someone to be your mentor informally. It may seem counter-intuitive, but asking someone to help you is an act of leadership, not an act of weakness. Leaders admit they do not know everything, but they always want to know more and be better.
Remember how leadership is about getting things done through others? Leaders use their resources. Leaders combine people, information, time and energy. You cannot be a leader alone. You need to get others involved and motivated to perform a common goal. It is not all about you. It is about the team.
Leaders give praise and criticisms constructively and as soon as possible. Praise can be given in front of others, but never criticisms. Praise should be given liberally for accomplishments. Like criticism, praise should be specific. Mention specific things that went well and where they shone the brightest. Praise should be given for effort, too. Even if the outcome was not as planned, praise hard work, persistence and ingenuity.
Criticism is harder when you are not directly responsible for the people involved. If you are working with a team mate who is not pulling their weight, ask them privately if there is an issue (misunderstanding, missing information from others, personal matter). Offer constructive ways to resolve the issue. Avoid words like “always” and “never”. Focus on the work – don’t make it personal.
Have you ever heard the same words said with different intonation? Such as hearing someone say “sure” meaning “yes” versus a sarcastic “sure” meaning “not likely”. How you say something can be just as important as what you say. Be tactful. Think before you speak. Good leaders can say difficult things in ways that make others hear the message without being threatened. The quality of one’s voice is such an important part of the message that communicating non-verbally (e-mail, text) creates a real risk. When the message is important, use the phone or better yet, meet in person.
No one is handing you leadership assignments? When leadership opportunities arise, are you asking for them? Do you see something that should be done that no one else does? Take the initiative and ask to do it! One of life’s big lessons is that you get more of what you want if you ask for it. When you take this kind of initiative, you are showing that you can step outside your comfort zone and take on a challenge. Leadership qualities indeed!
By using these skills, you will begin to cultivate the leader in you. It takes skill and it takes courage. Make the leadership investment – you are worth it.