One of my worries about the idea of leadership is when it becomes this weighty, abstract concept, something talked about in the tones of Greek and Roman artifacts, something that is out of reach for most, yet permanent once obtained.
This worries me because leadership should be understood as something practiced and refined, often without commission or reward and sometimes done unconsciously. Many people simply go about their lives with purpose, integrity and camaraderie — that can be leadership without the concept ever being uttered. Leadership and power aren’t synonyms, even if they often find each other neighbors.
Further, leadership is not static. You don’t take a course and say, “Hey, I’ve mastered leadership. What’s next?” Despite the title of nearly every book, you can rarely use a generic five-step method to succeed at whatever you put your mind to. Learning to be better, both as a person and as a leader of others, is a never-ending job.
The good thing about that is you’ll likely have opportunities: whatever your situation, you can get out there and help yourself and others build toward something bigger than yourselves. We each are dealt a hand by life and circumstance, but we hopefully have the chance to make our own mark.
The below concepts are simple, but I hope they are helpful in starting down a long, fulfilling road. Leading is not separate from living, and that means there is no template or fixed end to the journey. Even with the best guide, you’ll need to be your own navigator.
- Start small. Leadership is rarely the big display we imagine. It’s a collection of small moments, small deeds, preparation, listening and reflection, and a little luck.
- Don’t wait for a title. Nearly every great sports team will include a discussion of an unsung hero, or sparkplug, or someone who was the prototypical “leader” yet propelled the team. Every social setting has this — be someone who sees the good in others, the possibility for connection and exploration. A title won’t help you find this vision, and a lack of title won’t stop you from having an influence.
- Don’t copy celebrities. You don’t need to learn specifically from Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Maybe your situation will be just like that of Uber, Slack or Henry Ford, but it’s unlikely. Figure out who you are, and if you do want inspiration …
- Listen and observe. You can be self-taught in some fields of study. This is a study of people, though. Watch others, see how they handle adversity and conflict, see how they inspire. When possible, ask these people how they handle difficult situations. Their answers may work for you; they may not. Also, pay attention to those who fail on those counts; why don’t they succeed?
- Assume good intent in others. Some people are incorrigible or traitorous. You can hone your radar for those outliers without sacrificing your humanity. You’ll be hard-pressed to learn from and help others if you’re always braced for an attack.
- Read. Leadership books can help, but be wary of those that are rigidly tied the author’s magical system. Look for those that talk about thinking and purpose and effort rather than exact actions and results. But mostly, be curious — read about subjects that fascinate you and try great books and essays where you aren’t naturally compelled by the author or subject. Read fiction, too. That’s a tough one for me.
- Have a life outside of work. There are rare cases where your job is disproportionately important compared with the rest of your life — if you’re starting a company, are in the Peace Corps, are the U.S. president, et al. That’s fine. Even those people have something outside of work and some kind of motivation besides the job immediately in front of them. Ask yourself: “What if my job went away tomorrow? What if suddenly I was unable to work? What would I be?”
- Don’t forget to do your job. Rarely will your job actually be to sit around and think or walk around and forcefully lead people. As James Allen writes of companies that lose their way: “The doer role is somehow seen as the easy, commodity job and the thinking role is seen as the important job.” Be great at what you do, serve co-workers and customers, and you’ll suddenly find yourself leading.
- You will struggle. You’ll say the wrong thing, or make a judgment call that doesn’t pan out, or simply be too tired to do much. Process these moments, ask how you might improve, and then try to do better next time. Try not to repeat the same mistakes. This is not easy, but that’s the point of overcoming challenges.
James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief, where he edits SmartBrief on Leadership, a daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.