Ah, leadership – the coveted position of authority, power and influence that comes with ascension through an organization; or so we think!
I often hear, “I want to be promoted so I can lead people and influence decision making”. My response is, if you want to lead tomorrow you better start now. Leadership is not a title nor a position. Leadership is not the golden ticket to the land of influencers and motivators. Leadership is about a person, not a person’s position.
One of the gravest mistakes people make in their career is deciding that they want to become a people leader and then waiting to become a people leader before trying to actually become a leader. It’s the equivalent of thinking your boyfriend will become all the things you want him to be once you get married. Truth is, he’ll be himself and he may be even more himself under the pressure of you trying to make him what he never was.
The same goes for us as leaders. Trying to learn who you are as a leader and what you need to flex to be your best self for others every day, after you have already stepped into the responsibility of leading others, is incredibly difficult. And yet, it is all too common. We start working on giving people the skills to lead the day after we promote them to management. Overnight, people go from performance based on technical excellence to performance based on the influence of others towards technical excellence. And we wonder why so few people report enjoying their managers.
Call me an optimist, but I believe it is statistically improbable that there are so many poor leaders because people don’t care about leading. I think even the most well intended, enthusiastic person can become a poor leader if they never train for the position before being in it.
My solution is to remind people to lead from now. Start this very minute in learning how to influence others to follow you and your ideas. Figure out which of your tools need sharpening so you can get people to engage in the things you say. If you have never been able to convince a group of peers, or dare I say your boss, to buy into a strategy you have, you are not ready to lead a team of people. If you can become an influential voice that drives direction when nobody is organizationally structured to follow, you are truly a leader.
I often say, many people have employees that are not leaders and many leaders don’t have employees. Learning to start leading before it is technically required of you will give you the confidence to withstand the pressure that even the best leaders feel. You’ll start to understand that when you are responsible for motivating others, your job changes entirely. You can turn off a computer or shut down a spreadsheet. You can’t turn off your responsibility for moving a team from where they are to where you need them to be. You have to build a muscle that can withstand the realities that when you are leading others, you will no longer be everyone’s best friend and you are now required to consider others before making even the smallest decision. Selflessness and servitude must become a habit and it takes time to form a habit. This repetitive exercise needs to start now. You want those around you to see you as a leader, to call on you for influential thought leadership; this begins now.
Lead from now. Start small and write down a few ideas you have influenced in your current role. Try to remember the last time you changed somebody’s mind and think about the strengths you possess that helped you do that. Challenge yourself to try another idea out. Ask for opposing views and develop a strategy to address them. Start practicing right now. If you have never given your boss feedback, you must begin. If you do not regularly require feedback on your performance, you must begin.
The art of giving and receiving feedback is leadership 101 and yet so many never take the class. We believe wrongly that titles and the associated power will transform us into who we want to become. The opposite is true and those that fail to build leadership muscles before becoming responsible for the careers and day-to-day satisfaction of others, are destined to travel a far more difficult leadership path. The greatest advice I can give anyone looking to grow their career is to lead from this moment forward and never look back. Find yourself in leadership and then be yourself every day, no matter your title or position in an organization. Do not wait to be asked or designated a leader. Lead from now!