Act Like a Leader: Help Others Succeed. Build Strategic Alliances. Know Yourself.
Year after year, U.S. organizations spend billions of dollars on the development of high-potential professionals to shore up their leadership pipelines and succession plans. Not everyone with an eye toward upper management makes the cut, however.
Different companies have their own ideas and standards of what leadership material looks like in their specific culture, and those characteristics aren't always obvious or openly communicated to the vast majority of workers looking for advancement. There are, however, a few tried and true practices that -- if truly implemented and mastered -- can put you on a short list of performers who have the edge in the leadership race over less-enlightened peers.
1. Focus on making others successful
Savvy leaders makes sure they have the right people working for them -- the right competencies, the appropriate temperament, a drive to succeed -- and then inspire them to do great things. Leadership isn't about you but about helping others become successful and about removing the obstacles -- excessive bureaucracy, interpersonal conflict, uncertainty and toxic cultures -- that hinder that success.
Getting to know people and learning what resources and conditions they need to be at their best has to be a top priority for leaders at all levels. One especially crucial factor is giving people sufficient autonomy to exercise some control over aspects of their environment and the work itself, from the way their office space is arranged to the ways desired results are achieved. The perception of having autonomy can mean the difference between a truly engaged workforce and one that is purely transactional, trading time and effort for money.
2. Communicate a powerful vision
For people to truly commit to a goal, they need to know the "why" of the work. They want to know that their efforts matter, and that there's a bigger purpose to what they're spending many of their waking hours doing.
Great leaders communicate that purpose in form of a compelling vision -- a desirable future state or accomplishment that people want to be part of. For this, leaders must master strategic storytelling -- the ability to create, in simple and inclusive language, specific inspiring images that engage the emotions, tap into people's values and dreams, and clearly connect their hard work and day-to-day activities to a better, brighter future they helped create.
3. Deliver positive results
Leaders who don't produce key outcomes aren't leaders for very long. Attributes like decisiveness, persistence and follow-through in constantly changing contexts and environments as well as the emotional intelligence needed to achieve delivery through others are critical to being perceived as an effective leader.
Emerging leaders can develop their abilities to deliver results by finding opportunities that enable them to make important decisions and direct people toward a common goal. Joining a nonprofit board or the leadership committee of a local association or volunteering to lead an important new project at work can provide these opportunities and hone the competencies required to weigh the options, listen to intuition and make the tough calls that yield impressive results.
4. Build alliances via strategic networking
Being invisible isn't really an option for leaders who are looking to effect change. To lead is to influence, to gain buy-in, to win support for change efforts and innovative ideas, and to do so from a multitude of stakeholders both internal and external to an organization. Smart leaders accomplish their goals by creating a strong network of allies and supporters, looking beyond their immediate circle of influence.
They identify key stakeholders and power players who can influence others on their behalf. They strive to find common interests with perfect strangers who can provide innovative solutions and valuable perspectives on complex problems and connect them to critical resources that benefit the organization.
These leaders do not let behavioral predispositions like introversion or a lack of interpersonal chemistry get in the way of establishing relationships and expanding their network. They get over the discomfort to reach out, and they invest the time to build trust. Finally, they prioritize others' interests in establishing connections, demonstrating that they are givers first rather than mere users fixated only on taking.
5. Increase self-awareness and self-monitoring
With increased visibility and a higher platform, leaders' communication and behaviors are under intense scrutiny. Words have more weight and may be misinterpreted. Messages are dissected for shades of meaning that can affect the choices and behaviors of many followers. Unaware leaders whose behaviors don't align with stated values and intentions can incur reputational costs, and they may lose their credibility and the ability to influence.
Developing greater self-awareness, not just around our strengths and weaknesses but around other powerful internal drivers such as personal preferences, desires, fears, biases, resistance and other myriad habits, is the critical first step for leaders who aspire to self-monitor. But knowing ourselves is not enough. We must use that knowledge in the moments when it really counts, training our minds to alter our communication and behaviors when our internal drivers kick in, just as a thermostat kicks in when it senses a certain temperature.
No matter where you find yourself in the hierarchical world of work, whether your organizational structure is top-down, heavily matrixed or Zappos-style flat, the ability to understand yourself and communicate with others, the drive to find solutions to big business challenges by managing up and across, and a focus on delivering results by helping others become successful are unshakable assets that will serve you well at every step of your career.
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