Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.
The pinnacle of a person’s career is a leadership role, right? Well . . . not necessarily.
Many people embrace that narrative, but not everyone lands a leadership position during their careers. Some people just aren’t cut out for managing others. Some might be well qualified but for whatever reason get passed over for it. And others never even want to be considered for that level of responsibility.
Whether someone presents a leadership opportunity to you, or you have to take the initiative and seize (or create) one yourself, be sure to set aside some time for introspection and self-assessment. First you have to determine if you’re truly ready to lead.
Characteristics of leaders
Anyone has the potential to lead, but not everyone is ready to be a manager. Those who are ready have certain characteristics that make them well-suited to lead people and help them reach their full potential.
You find inspiration in developing others.
Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.
Managing people can be one of the most rewarding activities you can do when working for a company! It’s awesome to see employees who work for you surpass even their own personal expectations!
That said, inspiring employees every day takes work, so don’t think all you have to do is just show up. You have to be involved with your employee’s development (even if your own boss isn’t taking time for yours). You also have to be able to manage the employees who just want to come to work, do their jobs, and go home (they exhibit their own kind of leadership and are just as valuable as the ones who actively pursue leadership roles).
You are committed to investing time to help others.
Always know why you’re meeting, and make sure it’s important.
Managing others requires putting in the time—sometimes lots of it!—engaging directly with your employees so you can support and develop them. Meeting regularly is a must for people leaders. Employees want to see and feel that their boss is invested in them—and that investment equates to spending time with them.
For example, I have four team members who work for me. Every Monday we all meet together for 30 minutes (when someone new joins the team, those meetings last for 60 minutes until the new person is caught up) and use this time for collaborative efforts. Every Tuesday morning I meet individually with each team member. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. I also maintain “office hours” when team members can “drop by” (via phone, Slack, e-mail, etc.) if they have questions or need to discuss something with me.
All of these scheduled meetings reduce the time I have to work on my own projects. But spending this time helping my employees is part and parcel of being a manager, because occupying a leadership role means thinking beyond just getting my own work done.
You are able to coach others to develop their skills.
I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.
As soon as you are in a leadership role (whether by starting a new team or inheriting a group from someone else), your employees will look to you for help in developing their skills and advancing their careers. (So, if you don’t already have this skill, start working on it ASAP, because I guarantee you will need it!)
Coaching entails giving feedback while simultaneously asking questions and pushing the employee to think outside the box. The goal of coaching isn’t to solve their problems but to expand their thinking so they can solve their own problems (which get bigger as the employee’s skills develop). To be a great coach you also need excellent listening skills, because coaching is about what the employee needs from you—not what you want to share with them. Every employee has unique needs, so you must be able to meet each one where they are in their own professional journey.
You are able to delegate (and let go of your pet projects).
The first rule of management is delegation. Don’t try and do everything yourself, because you can’t.
As you move up the corporate ladder, you’ll need to let go of what you’ve been doing so you can focus on your new responsibilities. This requires being able to delegate, which is a skill that’s absolutely critical to effective leadership. Being responsible for multiple projects means not being able to do everything yourself. So, you have to enable—and trust—others to do the work.
In addition to learning to delegate, though, you also may have to give up tasks and projects that you enjoy doing and that bring you joy. Instead of doing those tasks yourself, you may find yourself having to motivate others to do it. (And guess what? It’s likely that they won’t do it the same way you did—which might drive you crazy!)
Part of being a people leader involves letting go of not only the responsibility for certain tasks and also letting go of how they get done. Your staff needs to learn how to do those things themselves (and not be told how to do them), so provide support for them—but don’t stand in their way as they learn these lessons.
You are able to have difficult conversations.
Difficult conversations are always uncomfortable.
No manager enjoys having to talk with an employee about their failure to meet performance expectations. There’s no way to sugar coat that difficult conversation. But it’s part of the job of managing employees, and if you take on that role you will definitely have to do it.
Preparation and practice can help you get used to doing this, but it will always be difficult (and never really gets easier). If you want to manage people, you must be willing and able to have these difficult conversations—and also be ready to fire someone, if needed.
You are motivated to learn on your own.
I am still learning.
Unfortunately, most companies simply promote their fabulous individual contributors to management roles without giving them any training on how to do their new jobs. But leading employees is a hugely different skill from doing individual tasks, so you’ll probably need to figure out on your own how to do that. Perhaps one of the most important criteria for being ready to lead people is having enthusiasm and drive for finding out what it takes to motivate and engage your employees!
Going in a different direction
Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths.
Maybe management isn’t for you. You might lack the required skills (those can be developed, though, so this reason isn’t necessarily a dead end) or the right temperament or personality. Maybe you work best independently and don’t want to have to keep track of other people’s work, or perhaps you don’t want to give up the kind of work you enjoy doing (your own creative pursuits, for example, or your own research). Or maybe being a manager simply isn’t one of your long-term career goals.
Any of these reasons are totally fine. Management isn’t for everyone. After all, not everyone’s ambitions lie in being a boss—and that is truly okay.
Just because management isn’t for you, though, that doesn’t mean you can’t lead. There are many ways you can be a leader in your organization or in your field. In addition to excelling in your own work, you can inspire others, for example, and pursue self-improvement. (I discuss these possibilities—and more!—in my blog post “Leading from the Chair You’re In.”)
Putting the final pieces in place: are you ready to lead?
Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.
If you aspire to be in a management role but aren’t quite ready to lead, you’re in luck: I’ve written a lot on how to develop your management and leadership skills! These past blog posts are great places to start:
- “Creating Your Own Leadership Development Plan”
- “Need More Time for Strategic Thinking? Learn Effective Delegation!”
- “How to Manage Employees without Killing Innovation”
- “The Fine Line between Micromanaging and Empowering”
- “Building Your Management Skills—Even Without Help from Your Company”
- “Strategic Thinking: How to Get Better at It”
- “Leadership Essentials: Credibility”
- “Leadership Essentials: Tact and Diplomacy”
- “Leadership Essentials: Empath
- “Tapping into Purpose”
- “Giving Difficult Feedback”
Once you get started on this journey, you will feel more confident each day as your skills grow and build on each other. If you have the ambition to become a manager and the ability (and motivation!) to develop the skills you need for that role, I know that you will soon be ready to lead!