If you’ve ever taken the time to Google “how to become a leader”, you will find about a zillion different theories and checklists telling you how it should be done and the different ways you can achieve it. One popular suggestion is that through copying other leaders, you will learn to succeed - even though, as an aspiring leader, your chances of success are slim. In reality, leading isn’t at all about copying the nearest leader in the hopes of one day leading yourself. What makes a great leader isn’t about what you do, but more of why and how.
When it comes to becoming a great leader, here are 5 ideas to consider...
Leaders aren’t given authority, they earn it
Success stories about individuals excelling when faced with huge responsibility in some moment of need or crisis make for great fiction, but it’s really not how most leaders are born. Instead, they start leading before anyone has given them any formal blessing and, by honing their skills, they’re then rewarded with bigger challenges.
This speaks to the fact that leaders don’t have titles or powers as much as they have skills and abilities. Just think about the people you’ve known who couldn’t stop leading if they tried, while others couldn’t lead despite having the most impressive title or office.
Leaders don’t devise solutions, they articulate problems
Organizations face any number of legitimate challenges, large and small, and it’s easy to squander people and resources when trying to overcome them. Leaders are those who understand those challenges, and can parse and prioritize them for others, though without being overtly controlling of how exactly those challenges will be solved.
This is what constitutes vision, and it’s perhaps the most ephemeral yet most important service a leader can provide. Seeing what’s possible, articulating how important it is, and then empowering individuals and teams to pursue solutions is what differentiates success from failure…and builds careers.
Leaders don’t give orders, they encourage initiative
Remember the last time you were told exactly how to do something by someone in authority? Even if you truly had no idea where to start, you probably felt a bit put off by it, or perhaps slightly un-empowered - like you needed to check back for the next set of directions before doing something on your own and acting on your own initiative.
This is a cardinal sin of leadership, and it’s illustrative of the difference between educating and learning; educating is one-way, providing information that might be quite useful, but it’s controlling. On the other hand, learning is a two-way street, and encourages problem-solving and skills development. The best leaders help their people learn. Also, this enables them to learn, too.
Leaders don’t own successes, but they always own failures
There’s a cliche that goes like this: “victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” and it is an apt description of the context in which leaders function. Success is an outcome of an individual and/or team effort, and great leaders don’t just enable that work, but freely give credit for its positive accomplishments.
Leaders must also assume responsibility for failures - so defeat isn’t an orphan after all - and they should strive to see the shortcomings in their own efforts to enable and inspire their people. It’s a tough rule to live by, but it helps define the role of leadership as accomplishing something beyond one’s own reward.
Leaders aren’t someone else, they’re themselves
If you assume that you need to follow some checklist that constitutes what leaders say or do, the people around you will see right through it; as a result, you simply won’t be as effective as you would be if you chose to lead based on your own personality and strengths. Just be yourself.
The trick isn’t to become the next great leader like Sheryl Sandberg, Steve Jobs or Indra Nooyi by doing what they’ve done before you, but to be the leader you can be, by doing things in ways that are authentic to you, and to the people who you hope will follow you. In our latest lessons on Leadership, we explore what leading looks like, what good leaders do and don't do and how you can exhibit leadership skills no matter what your current job role is. Go to our Leadership course page for more information or you can check out a clip from the lessons below.