Leadership: 5 Steps to Becoming a Great Leader
When I stumbled into my first leadership role, almost 20 years ago, I had absolutely no clue what to do and got paid for it! I admit, I was a classic case of fake it until you make it; interestingly today you can find a lot of self-help gurus advocating just that approach.
Sure, I had all the technical skills, but that was about it (sounds vaguely familiar?). I still remember the helplessness I felt when I was introduced to my new team; all eyes on me, now what?
As a recent German immigrant my background differed vastly from everyone else around me, culture, education, ethics etc., I had no idea. Hack, I had to lookup words in a dictionar, cultural differences were the least of my concerns. One advantage of working for corporate America though (in addition to health insurance) is, that they can send you to all kinds of leadership training known to man, and they sure did. I am passionate about learning, so fortunately, this was a sweet deal.
Fast forward 20 years…
When I think about leaders today, sadly the first thoughts coming to my mind deal with inequality, corruption, abuse of power, greed, lawlessness and other equally unflattering concepts. There are, of course, exceptions.
So what is leadership?
A leader is a person who influences or directs a group towards a common goal.
Historically great leaders came from all walks of life. Other than physical characteristics (Vikings…), leadership in the past often depended on advantages in skills and knowledge combined with character. Today many leaders achieve their status through promotions, unfortunately not always based on their leadership abilities. Others become leaders because they started a small business. Of course, there are many avenues to leadership positions and there is nothing wrong with either.
No matter how you got there, leadership doesn’t just happen. Citizens may consider their country’s officials (more or less democratically elected) ‘leaders’; however, would anyone still follow these people if they were NOT in a position of power? Generally, people will not magically follow you. Your employees might, but that could be because they depend on their pay. Would they still follow your leadership in an environment where you would have no power over them? In many cases that answer is a clear NO, which should make you (and it certainly made me) think!
Fortunately, most leaders are made, not born making leadership a skill you can acquire. The basis for leadership is that you possess current skills and knowledge in your area of expertise, without those people will not respect you. The third characteristic mentioned above is character, a combination of multiple personality traits, and the only one not easily acquired.
What can you do to become a great leader people will, once again, look up to and follow?
I have led companies and managed projects for over 20 years, attended almost every leadership program known to man and have read most books covering this topic, but no matter how complicated some people want to make it, great leadership broils down to some simple concepts you can easily learn and apply:
‘He who knows himself is wise’ – An ancient quote from Lao Tse appropriately says and becoming an effective communicator starts with learning about yourself. In respect to your behavior and communication style one of the easiest ways to learn is by completing a DISC Assessment. In addition to your behavioral preferences, a good DISC Assessment includes a section about how other people perceive you, an eye-opening read… Get a DISC Assessment.
People sooner or later see through your facade, so why bother? You don’t have to be perfect, everybody makes mistakes, leaders too. Embrace your imperfections that way you don’t provide a target for your enemies (I hadn’t mentioned those yet, but trust me becoming a great leader unfortunately entails making enemies, because standing up for your cause inevitably alienates at least a few people).
Be comfortable with who you are and value others for who they are.
Be modest and respectful. Sadly, greed and arrogance lie at the heart of most of the world’s problems today. From dictators to presidents to your neighborhood small business owner who has his business fund his elaborate lifestyle while simultaneously not paying vendors, greed and arrogance is the common denominator that bankrupts the system. Remember, no one person is better than any other, period.
Clearly state what you are going to do and then act accordingly. People will judge you by your actions, not your words, however clever and eloquent you might express yourself. Nothing will erode your authority and the trust people place in you faster than lack of integrity. It is easy to take credit for success and it is as important to accept responsibility for failure and screw-ups, the latter a trait apparently forgotten. If you can clearly see a discrepancy between spoken word and action (Fill in the name of any politician of your choice here) would you trust that person? Neither will anyone else.
A compelling and shared vision can move mountains, nobody wants to follow a dull leader. Great leaders know how to connect task and vision. JFK inspired America to build a spacecraft capable of bringing men to the moon and safely returning them back to earth – that was the task – the motivation was the desire for dominance in space.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Leaders are made and you too can become a great leader. Most likely you already possess the skills and knowledge required in your field, if not, now would be a great time to start learning! Developing a favorable character isn’t rocket science either, be real, have integrity and show humility is a great start, then learn about yourself and refine your communication skills, both of which you can accomplish with a professional DISC Assessment in no time (shameless, but useful plug here!)
Learning to be inspirational will be trickier; however, if you have mastered all other steps, inspiration will come with a project you are passionate about. In the meantime, identify a few people who inspire you and dissect what makes them inspirational. Chances are, if a person inspires you, others will feel the same. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to emulate their behavior and make it your own.
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Thanks to the talented photographer who’s image we used in this post. The Flickr username is:
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