So You Want to be a Leader?

One of my favorite interview questions is “How do you define leadership, how do you define management, and what’s the difference?”  The right people know that there are many important differences.  Chief among them is that, while it may take a while to reach a management position, young professionals can work on and develop leadership skills right away.  Especially if they work in teams.

There are at least four things a young professional can do to begin establishing themselves as leaders:

  1. Help others understand and make sense of their environment.  Become skilled in explaining situations in practical terms that are clear to all.
  2. Provide or support a bright picture of the future to help foster a sense of direction and the belief that the team (or an individual) can achieve its goals.
  3. Support belief in the shared values of others.
  4. Give the group a feeling of power and control over the environment.

In short, a leader helps their team understand what they’re up against, what they have to accomplish, that they’re in it together, and that they’re empowered to do it.  This helps individual employees with disparate goals pull together as a team to be effective.

As a young employee, you won’t be directly called upon to provide these four benefits.  In fact, many corporations may not even think of these four characteristics when describing their leaders.  But it’s actually fairly simple to work these into your routine until they become a natural part of your work personna.

Always work to understand the big picture.  This demonstrates knowledge of the business, support for the agenda, and will help you in your immesiate responsibilities.  Practice explaining your role in the overall context, and work with other people to do the same.

Supporting your team seems like a no-brainer, but it isn’t something we usually keep on our task list.  Sending a support email to your team when a deadline looms, or standing up in a meeting to illuminate a recent victory is easy to do.  Everyone else’s attitude and confidence increase when they see that someone else has faith and a positive outlook.

I’ve seen excellent leadership from the youngest team members, and terrible leadership from experienced managers.  At some point in your career (and it won’t be long), promotions and raises will depend on leadership skills in addition to tactical or operational skills.  It’s never too soon–or too late–to start practicing.

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