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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

8 Surefire Signs You're on the Path to Becoming a Real Leader


It’s natural to wonder “What’s next?”—or, more accurately, when you’ll climb to the next rung on the ladder in your career. In an ideal world, your boss would just tell you whenever you’re making moves in the right direction.

But it’s not an ideal world, and for a variety of reasons, a manager doesn’t always tell a direct report he or she is a rising leader. So, you may have to find other signs that your company believes in you and your potential for growth. Sure, being assigned a leadership coach or getting invited to attend a specialized program for management are obvious indicators. But there are other, more subtle signs that might be equally telling.

1. You’re Asked to Do Weird Jobs

Every organization has a set of core tasks that people at different levels perform, but most companies also get one-off projects that they willingly do to satisfy a key customer or as an experiment in a new category. Being asked to work on something without a roadmap is often a vote of confidence.

Keep in Mind

If you’re asked to do a task that falls outside your job description, say “yes” and show you’re willing to take on additional projects. (Unless, of course, you don’t have the expertise, support, or bandwidth.) But if you can, and fitting it in will just be a little outside your comfort zone, see this as opportunity to show how you can stretch.

2. You Notice That People Come to You for Help

There’s a big difference between being good at your job and good at helping others do their jobs—and a lot fewer people are good at the teaching and mentoring aspect. If people are coming to you, they either figured out you excel at something , or they were sent to you as a knowledgeable resource. Either way, it’s a good sign.

Keep in Mind

When people do ask for your assistance, don’t do the job for them—instead show them how you think about the task and help them find their own path to be successful. This approach demonstrates that you’re management material, someone capable of making good people great.

3. You’re Sent to Help Others

This move is a frequent favorite among some managers. Let’s say your colleague is trying to untangle a complex mess and it looks like he won’t make a looming deadline. Your boss asks you to “help out,” which is really shorthand for “this person is struggling and I don’t have time, would you please make his problems go away?”

Keep in Mind

Again, don’t just roll up your sleeves and fix everything. Listen to your co-worker’s perspective and then report back to your supervisor with a constructive solution that gets the work done—and allows your colleague to keep his job.

4. You’re Invited to More Brainstorming Sessions

Behind just about every successful initiative or program is a group of people who were invited to think about it before it began. Being invited means your manager values your opinion.

Keep in Mind

These aren’t problem-solving sessions, they are thinking sessions, so don’t assume your job is to know all the answers. In a thinking conversation, it’s more important to help zero in on the important questions than it is to have all the answers.

5. You Get More Direct, Critical, and Precise Feedback

These comments says a lot. If you work in a feedback culture and have been flagged as a leader-in-training, expect people to be more attentive to how you work, not less.

Keep in Mind

You might find that some of your manager’s critiques feels too picky or hard to act on. Don’t worry (yet), just take it in and listen to it. This kind of conversation is almost always a gift, so receive it that way. Look for the kernel of truth that you can learn from and use. You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but you do need to avoid getting defensive. Practice listening and saying “thanks.”

6. You Feel More Neglected

I know, this is the polar opposite of being inundated with feedback, but you might experience both pretty close together. You’ll feel flooded with critical comments one week, then completely ignored for the next month.

Sometimes, bosses want to see how proactive and self-starting their future leaders are. Those who need less care and feeding may have the edge over those who need constant reinforcement and direction to be productive.

Keep in Mind

If this situation sounds familiar, make a point to provide your manager with semi-frequent but very brief updates that convey the message “I’m doing fine, but I wanted to keep you in the loop on important projects and milestones I’m working toward.”

7. You’re Invited to Join a Team That Doesn’t Have a Boss

Boss-less teams are more the norm today than ever before, but that’s because management has usually seen someone—or multiple people—on the team with strong leadership skills. So, they know that leadership will show up within the group when it’s needed.

Keep in Mind

Be the person who knows how to work well with others and who can act like a boss or a follower. Assume there are others in the group who are doing the same thing.

8. You See Shifts in Your Relationship With Management

Your boss may be moving away from spending as much time with you because you’ve been slated for a promotion and are leaving her group, or her manager may be spending more time with you to get to know you before you are moved into a new role that’s closer to her. The shift means something.

Keep in Mind

You don’t necessarily need to know what’s happening, just roll with it and if you are confused, mention it as an observation that needs clarification—not a complaint.

The best training comes from doing real work, in real life and real time. It’s difficult and potentially dangerous for your boss to say, “Hey, you are a leader-in-training” because of the expectation and pressure it sets-up. But if you are being noticed for your managerial skills, there will be signs: All you have to do is notice them.