Leadership is a venerable quality, one often associated with heroes and great figures of sport and society, owning an unattainable, even divine gift.
So when we read about leadership in the context of work, do we think we need to emulate such luminaries? Do we assume leadership is an innate skill, one you’re born with?
“It’s true that some people are born leaders, but anyone is capable of developing leadership skills,” says Lisa LaRue, a registered career coach at CareerWorx.
Whether or not you’re a manager or in a position of leadership, it’s all about having the right attitude, says Oliver Watson, executive board director at PageGroup. “Showing initiative, learning new skills and going that extra mile are efforts anyone can make, at all levels.”
Yet this may sound easier said than done. Where and how do you begin honing, instigating or even creating such aspects of yourself? According to Liz McKechnie, director at training consultants Aspire Leadership, we begin by taking responsibility for one person – ourselves.
“Before you can even start to lead others you need to be able to lead yourself,” says McKechnie. “This means making conscious decisions about how you want to be in your life, both at home and at work. A good start is to write an epitaph for yourself and consider what you would like people to think, feel and say about you at the end of your life. This gives you an idea of the actions you need to start taking now, which includes how you relate to others. Your guiding light will be your values – so you need to know what they are. What do you stand for?”
Developing self-awareness is an ongoing journey, one that can lead to stronger emotional intelligence, an increasingly vital skill, particularly for aspiring leaders who want to empathise with others to then inspire them. “But without knowing how to inspire, motivate and lead ourselves, it’s very hard to begin to look at how to do it for others,” says McKechnie.
“So the starting point is self-awareness around our own values, beliefs and patterns of behaviour. These have often been formed at a relatively early age and may be quite elusive. What are we afraid of? Why do we do what we do? What do we really want?”
A great leader is…
With an understanding of your values and beliefs, what then defines a good leader for you to aspire to?
“A good leader demonstrates passion, integrity, humility and wisdom,” says LaRue. “They lead by example. Good leaders inspire and encourage others and possess qualities such as positivity, honesty and compassion while showing courage, passion and determination. Whether leading a team or not, a good leader sets benchmarks that encourage those around them to achieve.”
Knowing how best to utilise the different skillsets within a team in order to obtain the best possible results is a sign of great leadership, says Watson. “Stay modest, learn from others before trying to teach them your ways, be open to feedback and you will be perceived as a curious and driven professional, without taking the risk of overstepping the boundaries of your role.”
A good leader in the workplace has an awareness of the business, says McKechnie. “They can think strategically about the market dynamic and what might be coming; they need to understand the hierarchy, culture and processes – the mechanics of the organisation.”
Being aware of boundaries
Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of developing and practicing leadership skills, particularly if you’re not in a designated leadership role, is knowing and not overstepping boundaries.
“Staying inquisitive is an easy way to do this,” says Young. “Listen to your senior counterparts to see how they demonstrate the qualities of a leader on a day-to-day basis.”
Furthermore, you should have a good understanding of your role and responsibilities, says LaRue. “Where there are uncertainties, it’s best to communicate any concerns with your manager. There may be times, for example, when you want to show initiative but don’t feel confident in following through. It’s best to check with your manager or a colleague to determine if you might be overstepping boundaries before taking action.”
Being a leader, not a manager
Additionally, being a leader isn’t something automatically bestowed upon you by a management position.
“Not all leaders are necessarily managers, but neither are all managers seen as leaders,” says Watson. “Leadership is not only about managing people on the rung below. It’s more about leading the way on how people should approach situations within the business with great communication, than actually supervising people. If you are able to demonstrate your ability to work effectively with others in this way, you will most certainly be rewarded with recognition, and in time, the possibility to access more senior roles.”
For LaRue, it comes down to the distinction between managing processes and leading people. “A manager manages a process, whereas a leader exhibits behaviours that motivate people. Think of the metaphor: ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’.”
Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.