Just because you aren’t in the C-suite or managing people doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. Far from it actually!
Without question, leadership skills are critical for high-level roles where you have oversight over people and processes. But thinking that only “higher-ups” can be leaders limits not just your perspective but also your options. It’s critical to understand that nowadays, when competition is so intense, that leadership is important for everyone—and at any level—for companies to succeed (let alone for anyone who wants to advance their career). The key is to learn how to lead from the chair you’re in right now.
What Is Leadership?
To me, leadership is about encouraging people. It’s about stimulating them. It’s about enabling them to achieve what they can achieve—and to do that with a purpose.
As I mentioned above, being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of direct reports (though many leaders do). Leadership isn’t always tied to a rank or a title. It’s the ability to influence and shape others’ behavior—which means it’s available to anyone.
You heard that right. Anyone can be a leader.
I’m hammering on this point because I’m constantly surprised by how often people dismiss their own potential by assuming “oh, I’m not a leader.” During a course I recently taught at the corporate office of a company in the Midwest, for example, I spent a good chunk of the first part of the program convincing the attendees that they all could be leaders.
No fancy title? No problem. Not in a position where you manage people? Don’t even fret. Leaders occupy all type of roles and positions in the business world. No matter what role you have, you can lead from the chair you’re in. Be the best at what you do, and be someone whom other people look up to—and who inspires them in their own work.
Unfortunately, lack of confidence can torpedo your efforts to see yourself as a leader.
How do you get the heck out of your own way and act like a leader?
Confused on how to lead if you’re not managing people? Here are six traits of great leaders—and how to cultivate them in yourself:
- Communicates effectively
- Gets stuff done
- Lifts others up
- Maintains a positive outlook
- Pushes themselves to improve
- Acts with integrity
Let’s walk through these one at a time!
Communication—the human connection—is the key to personal and career success.
—Paul J. Meyer
When leaders are great communicators, they provide the conditions for their employees, their colleagues, and other people in their sphere of influence to do their best and become strong team players. Communication doesn’t mean “you listen while I talk.”
True communication is a back-and-forth conversation in which each interaction is shaped by others’ contributions and responses.
- listen actively to everyone
- proactively share information
- ensure everyone’s voice is heard
- provide feedback to peers and project team members
- connect other’s role to the “big picture”
- keep everyone informed about company happenings
- offer clear directions and expectations when asking others for help
- are able to assimilate details and make decisions
- ask thoughtful questions to drive learning and growth (theirs and others)
- show appreciation and give credit where it’s due
- project a friendly, polite, approachable, and positive attitude
- exhibit confidence
- show empathy
I’ve talked about the importance of communication many times, and for good reason: it’s the foundation of effective leadership no matter the chair you occupy. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, “If you want to up your leadership game, focus first on your communication skills.” Get this skill in order first, then move on to the others.
Gets Stuff Done
All the effective leaders I have encountered — both those I worked with and those I merely watched — knew four simple things:
- a leader is someone who has followers;
- popularity is not leadership, results are;
- leaders are highly visible, they set examples;
- leadership is not rank, privilege, titles or money, it is responsibility.
A leader gets stuff done. They work hard and smart to accomplish projects that impact the organization. They do not equate being busy to being productive. They are not afraid to ask others for assistance, drawing on the skills and knowledge of their fellow employees. When they do ask for help, they are clear and concise in their expectations.
When in charge of a project, a leader delineates roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. They drive and inspire others to achieve tasks by highlighting their connection to the employee’s personal goals, departmental goals, and company goals. Understanding the bigger picture—the “why” of the work—can help people feel more engagement and deliver better performance and leaders at all levels use this knowledge to fuel their co-workers or project team members to accomplish tasks.
Finally, people who excel at getting stuff done are excellent at delegating to others when and where appropriate. Yes, that’s right, they are not afraid to delegate tasks to others. What distinguishes someone who can delegate to a peer successfully vs. someone who cannot? They are able to ask for help in a way that motivates the other person to lend assistance. And they are mindful of not over-delegating…they do as much on their own as they delegate to others. They do so because they understand that no one can do everything completely on their own. They also reciprocate – when others need help, they are first to volunteer. Leading from the chair you’re in means you help as much as you ask for help.
Lifts others up
Over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.
Leaders, regardless of their position within an organization, lift others up. They share the credit. They take the time to proclaim the good work of others. They are not interested in petty gossip that tears others down. Instead, they coach others who may need help in order for them to achieve success.
Focused on future behavior, coaching is inherently developmental in nature. Its inquiry-oriented approach can help employees identify—and draw on—their potential (even if they don’t know they have it in them at first!). (For more on coaching, see my earlier blog post on this topic.)
When you lead from the chair you’re in, you want to do everything you can to inspire the people around you. Inspired people are motivated to exceed expectations and do their best for themselves, their teams, their departments, and their organizations.
Maintains a Positive Outlook
What I’ve really learned over time is that optimism is a very, very important part of leadership.
Sometimes, things don’t go entirely according to plan. Sometimes, things diverge completely from the plan and enter the realm of the totally unanticipated (a.k.a. the Land of WTF?!?!) That’s a lesson the whole world learned during the pandemic and one that will continue to resonate in the business world for some time to come.
Things change—and people aren’t always happy when that happens. But how you handle the unexpected, the unwelcome, and the surprises can have a huge impact on how those around you respond to them. If you freak out and panic, others will too. If you react with calm and grace, others will follow your lead.
As a leader, you may be tasked with introducing elements of change that not everyone wants. When your relationships are based on good communication and trust, you can mitigate the negatives (real and perceived) of such change by anticipating resistance, explaining the “why” around the changes, and inviting others to participate in developing them. When you lead with positivity, consistency, and empathy, you set the stage for a more positive reaction to change.
Pushes Themselves to Improve
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
—John F. Kennedy
If you want to be successful in the long term, you should not stop when you achieve a short-term success. The most effective leaders never rest on their laurels but instead constantly work to develop and improve themselves. Not only does this enable leaders to be the best they can be, but it sets an example that can inspire and motivate the others around them to be the best they can be, too!
Acts with Integrity
A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.
—John C. Maxwell
Before people will follow you, they must believe that you have credibility and integrity. You can increase your credibility by matching your actions to your words, admitting mistakes and assuming responsibility for them, keeping confidences, avoiding exaggeration, and acknowledging when you don’t know something.
To act with integrity, you must do what is right (even when difficult), ensure that quality standards are met in all aspects of your work, and conduct yourself in an ethical manner at all times
Final Thoughts to Lead from the Chair You’re In
Talent? Overrated. Leadership? Underrated.
This list details traits that anyone can learn and develop in themself. What’s not on this list, though, is any reference to a title or hierarchical position with an organization. Yes, many leaders do have employees and people reporting to them (and some of them sadly are not good leaders!). But not all people who have leadership characteristics are in those types of roles (at least, not yet! hint, hint!).
Yet even without corner offices and fancy titles, they are nonetheless leaders as long as they inspire, motivate, and support those around them.
Leading is less about a position than it is about attitude, effort, and confidence. No matter what role you currently have, you can lead from the chair you’re in!
P.S. Have you had an experience with extraordinary leadership? Do you have suggestions for other traits that are associated with great leaders? Please share your stories and recommendations in the comments below!