How to demonstrate leadership regardless of your position

By Victoria Draudins

May 21, 2020

Indigenous business woman
(Image: Getty)

Leadership is something you can look to develop long before being in the formal position of managing others. Victoria Draudins outlines six behavioural traits that will mark you out as a leadership choice.

While some great leaders are born, most are made over time. Like any craft, becoming a good leader involves putting in the focus and dedication to the skill over a number of years as you learn to navigate the challenges and complexities of leading others.

This means that it is not a given that being promoted and having the title of managing others makes someone a leader. And while someone may not be bestowed with title, they can still exert the influence and respect of others as a leader.

Start early, start now

Leadership is instead something you can look to develop long before being in the formal position of managing others. In fact, developing leadership capabilities at an early stage may put you in line for that more senior position.

As outlined in Harvard Business Review article Act Like a Leader Before You Are One by Amy Gallow, there are a number of ways you can start laying the groundwork.

1. Knock your responsibilities out of the park

This one is an obvious non-negotiable, after all it’s difficult to expect others to trust in you as a leader unless you demonstrate your competence in your own area of responsibility. As the article notes, make sure that no one, including managers, peers or direct reports have a reason to question your work.

2. Help your boss succeed

Find out what is troubling your boss and help them solve it. This can involve getting into the habit of leading with a ‘yes’ more than a ‘no’, when your boss asks you to do something new. This makes sense as doing so will help you establish a reputation as someone who steps up when needed.

Tips from other sources include getting to know your manager’s preferences, scheduling in time with them to ask about their goals and priorities, never letting your manager be blindsided and meeting or beating deadlines.

3. Help lift up your co-workers

While there is an ‘m’ and an ‘e’ in team, no one will follow you if you’re just looking out for your own interests. This point is reinforced by John Eades in Inc., who notes that helping others, by passing on knowledge or helping to problem solve will show you think about others and how to help lift them up.

Amy Jen Su, coauthor of Own the Room, also notes that ‘humble confidence’ will take you far. That is, by showing appropriate modesty, underpinned by the confidence that you will move up to the next level.

4. Seize leadership opportunities, no matter how small or difficult

This can involve putting yourself forward for new projects, especially those outside of your direct unit, so others can get a sense of what you’d be like in a more senior role. This can include more or less labour intensive pieces of work or even outside of work (such as sitting on the board of a local not for profit.

Other ways to stand out include getting involved in difficult tasks others are avoiding, or being willing to confront issues others are ignoring or don’t even know are a problem.

5. Find role models … and anti-role models

Find someone at the next level up who has you aspire to be like and pay attention to how they operate (e.g. the way they talk, dress, handle a challenging circumstance).

It’s important they have similarities to you, so you can look to emulate them while remaining your own authentic self. There are countless articles on the importance of authentic leadership. For example, a study published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal found that authenticity in a leader was the best indicator of employee happiness.

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, noted that you can also study people above you who are stuck in their careers, whether it be due to them being politically ineffective or disrespecting authority.

6. Build relationships

When your boss is considering you for a promotion, it’s unlikely they’ll make the decision unilaterally. They’ll rely on others’ feedback, so it’s crucial you have people aware of the work you’re doing and are supportive.

One way to help this is to view any interaction with more senior people, no matter how seemly casual, as an opportunity to demonstrate your value. As Maignan Wilkins, co-author of Own the Room states, “If you find yourself walking down the hall with the most senior person at your company, be prepared to answer the question, ‘So what are you up to?’”

Forbes’ article The Networking Advice No One Tells You outlines a number of ways you can become a better networker, including by ensuring you have the right mindset. This involves not shunning networking in the belief it is gratuitous or self-serving but instead focusing on building mutually beneficial relationships and being proactive in reaching out to see if others need help (not only when you need help).

It also suggests to aiming to create a diverse network of people who can help you achieve the goals you’ve set for the medium term and prioritise networking through schedule in time through a coffee or drink each week.

As the article notes: “It takes a village to have a successful career; people who provide you with information, connect you to others, help you get your job done, advocate for you, mentor, guide, and sponsor you. And to build this type of network, your networking activity needs to be strategic.”

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