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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

3 Ways You Can Start Being a Leader Today (Even if You Don't Feel Ready)


“I’m not really a leader; I don’t boss people around.”

This was how a young man recently described his leadership style to me. I found it particularly interesting because I had just finished a book that turned many similar assumptions about leadership—for example, that you must be all-knowing, domineering, and highly visible—on their heads.

It’s a simple truth: Leadership has changed. A quick Google search of the term will garner thousands of hits, offering wildly different opinions and approaches to the concept. So how can you effectively position yourself as a rising leader if you don’t know what that should look like?

Whether you want to climb the corporate ladder, strike out on your own one day, or simply become a more influential team member, you’re probably already in a leader in more ways than you realize. To continue working toward that goal, you simply need to readjust your thinking a little. Here are three key things you need to do to prepare yourself to become a leader.

1. Reconsider Your Definition of “Leader”

Effective leadership may not mean what you think it does. And if you are going to hone (and articulate) your abilities, you first need to be able to recognize and practice them.

When we think of leaders, we often think of the stereotype my friend thought of: someone who can effectively order others around. But there is plenty of evidence that other forms of leadership are equally—if not more—effective.

In Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Leaders Into Followers, David Marquet argues that a leader is measured not just by what she or he accomplishes, but by the accomplishments of those who work for and alongside that person.

He developed a model called “leader-leader” to replace the typical leader-follower paradigm. The leader-leader model assumes leadership is necessary at every level of an organization. It defies the idea that an organization needs someone at the top to tell everyone what to do, but rather, that organizations need a person who can bring out other leaders in the team.

In Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Adam Grant finds that the most successful people tend to be people who are supportive of those around them. These “givers” are people who recognize ability in others and encourage them in their work. Givers get things done because they draw the best out of those around them and earn their respect and loyalty along the way, creating a powerful and productive team.

This means it’s time to get over the idea that you need formal managerial experience to be a leader.

Think about the time you were part of a group that got stalled on a project and you helped identify individuals who could move each portion of the assignment forward, based on his or her strengths. You may not have been the official group leader, but you stepped into the position and lifted others into leadership roles, as well.

Or, think about the time you taught someone a valuable skill or encouraged someone who was struggling, so he or she was able to work through the issue to complete a project. No matter what your resume says, you’ve had plenty of opportunities to lead others. Think of those experiences, and whenever you need to prove your leadership chops, you’ll have plenty of examples to draw from.

2. Realize Leadership Doesn’t Look the Same for Everyone

Your boss probably has one style of leadership, your cube-mate has another, and the company CEO has yet another—even if each of these people follow the same guiding leadership principles.

One person may be boisterous and energetic in his or her style, while another is quiet, but steadfast. Whatever the style, the most effective leaders are genuine.

What does that mean for you? If you naturally have an energetic and lively personality, don’t try to embody a demure and soft persona, and vice versa. It will exhaust you, and the people around you will be able to tell you aren’t being yourself. Give yourself permission to lead as your authentic self. Figure out your strengths, and build on those.

What that doesn’t mean, however, is that you shouldn’t try to incorporate qualities from others’ leadership approaches into your own as you grow. Think about the leaders you admire. Why do you admire them? How do they treat others? How do they act in a crisis? Consider how you can adapt these qualities to fit your unique style.

At the same time, it’s equally important to acknowledge the behaviors you dislike in the leaders you’ve encountered. How can you avoid engaging in these behaviors? If you recognize some of those habits in yourself, what is your plan for changing your approach?

As you discover and cultivate the style that fits your personality, you’ll find that it’s easier for you to assume a leadership role—because it will feel natural. And that will help you develop into a more confident, capable leader.

3. Learn to Identify and Answer Leadership Questions Like a Pro

Of course, at some point—whether you’re in a job interview or are being considered to lead a project—you’ll probably be asked about your leadership style or abilities.

Some of these questions will be obvious—like, “Do you see yourself as a leader?” Of course, you should answer affirmatively. But don’t stop there. Explain yourself. Now that you’ve thought of ways you’ve been a leader in your past experiences, provide one or two of these examples to make it obvious that you do, in fact, have the right qualities.

However, some questions won’t be so obviously centered on leadership—but it’s your job to find a way to use those questions to showcase those skills. For example, someone might ask, “Tell me about a time you were part of a project that got off track. What did you do?” This question immediately gets to the heart of what employers are really looking for: someone who can influence others in a positive and productive way. This question doesn’t specifically ask for leadership traits, but you can easily use it to demonstrate your ability to be an example for your team, make a strong argument, or rally the folks around you to accomplish a goal.

You don’t need any special powers to be a strong leader. Great leaders and not-so-great leaders come into this world the same way; the difference between the two is their willingness to learn. Take the time to consider what the concept means to you and how you can build on your natural strengths to become the kind of person that people want to follow. Then, put that into action and continue learning from what works and what doesn’t. You’ll make a difference in your workplace, and you will have great examples to share in interviews as you climb to greater heights in your career!