You may not hold a managerial or executive title yet, but take heart: You can become a leader at any point in your career. The trick is focusing your energy on developing the traits most appreciated and needed in top-level supervisors and C-suite stars.
Start with the leadership basics
Before you can own a leadership role, you’ll need to exhibit some of the baseline personality, decision-making, and operational habits that the strongest execs present. In essence, these are the qualities you must have in place before taking your skill sets to the next career level and asking for that raise, snagging a coveted supervisory role, or starting your own disruptive brand.
The No. 1 attribute that separates good leaders from poor ones is the ability to envision the future and then move in that direction. Executives who allow themselves to pursue too many conflicting initiatives become liabilities to their teams. How can anyone feel comfortable following someone who has no clarity of mind, let alone a willingness to act with confidence and strength?
Another quality of good leaders is an almost indefatigable optimism. No, they needn’t be positive Pollyannas, but neither should they be negative Nellies. Solid founders, owners, and team leads dig up motivational positivity even when the chips are down. They truly believe that the sun will come out tomorrow, and they imbue their employees and mentees with the same spirit of eagerness.
Finally, those who earn spots at the top (and have terrific reputations) retain a sense of humility. They do not view lower-ranking workers as inferior to them. After all, they know that they are fortunate to be in their positions. At the same time, they can ask for assistance because it doesn’t injure their pride. Why worry about saying you don’t have all the answers if your self-esteem is on solid footing?
Once you possess those fundamental traits, you can then begin to build on them and up your leadership acumen. Here’s how you can develop three traits great leaders share:
1. Become the most curious cat in the jungle.
Curiosity can be one of your best friends as a leader, and you can display your inquisitiveness by asking tons of questions — and then listening intently to the answers. The key is being open-eared and open-minded. Too many people make inquiries only to interrupt with their opinions. Be sure you model empathetic listening by putting down your cell phone, removing distractions, and trying to learn something new from the dialogue. That way, you can foster genuine discussions.
Back in 2000, Greg Dyke was named head of the BBC. He differentiated himself immediately by listening to his crew instead of issuing directives. His questions were simply about how he could help BBC workers and viewers. The answers he received helped him change the direction of the broadcasting company for the better and made him a well-respected leader.
2. Show flexibility and resilience.
Life rarely goes as predicted. The easier it is for you to roll with the proverbial punches, the faster you can get back on track. Rick DeRose, co-founder and managing partner of top executive search firm Acertitude, talks regularly about the leadership advantages that come with adaptability. “Those who focus on the mission without getting hung up on the highs and lows will have the most potential to create value,” he explains. “They aren’t afraid of conflict and are comfortable with the discomfort that comes with change, which is exactly the type of person you want on your leadership team.”
If you’re not accustomed to bouncing back, embrace the adage “Practice makes perfect.” Put yourself in situations where you will need to make decisions without all the information upfront. Work with folks who are notoriously difficult. Stretch yourself a little further all the time. Eventually, you will become more able to withstand and overcome the unknowns.
3. Bring creativity to corporate.
Innovation is always beneficial if you are going to lead charges. In fact, creative thinking is the soft skill companies require most this year, according to LinkedIn. This reflects an ongoing culture shift: Due to increasing automation of technical skills, we’re placing more and more value on original thinking and innovative problem-solving. Take Satya Nadella as an example. When he was brought on as Microsoft CEO, Nadella redefined the corporation from being a product company to a people company. It was a radically creative take on a legacy organization, not to mention a bit of a gamble. But it paid off.
Sometimes you, too, have to trust your gut and act on instinct and improvisation. This requires tons of creativity. Be willing to try different things, even if they’ve never been done before. For instance, you might redefine a team’s core role for six months and see whether those employees become more engaged in the process. On the other hand, you may ask the team members themselves to redefine their roles as they think best. Who knows? Your (and their) imagination may just lead your company to a more exciting place.
Few people come into the world with 100 percent of the leadership skills they need. Those who make it to positions of authority — and maintain good reputations in the process — are the folks who work hard to reach their full potential. If that’s you, then the subject of the next leadership success story just might be the person in the mirror.