Lofty business titles make eye-catching résumé text. However, they don’t promise or predict good leadership. Getting promoted to manager, director, or the C-suite is no guarantee that someone will be effective at rallying the troops.
Inspiring a team requires doing more than pulling rank. It involves carefully honing the traits most associated with individuals whom others follow and trust.
The Actions of a Leader
For centuries, philosophers, sociologists, and scientists have attempted to identify the essential traits shared by those who successfully take charge. One of the most important leadership attributes, according to Peter G. Northouse, author of “Leadership: Theory and Practice,” is an ability to influence peers and subordinates to achieve desired objectives.
Influence should not be confused with intimidation. While fear-mongering leaders may find short-term success through hostile tactics, emotionally intelligent leaders connect on a human level, building strong psychodynamic bonds that allow them to prompt passion without threat of punishment. Research published in Harvard Business Review explains the value of this leadership approach: Empowering leaders typically have more influence over the creativity and helpfulness of their employees.
Another key leadership component, important even for first-time heads of departments or project leads, is role modeling. Role models live and act with integrity at every step. Though they may have to make tough decisions, they do so thoughtfully and with sensitivity to the needs of all stakeholders. Plus, they willingly communicate their choices in order to minimize friction, improve buy-in, and engender trust.
Of course, not everyone who lands a plum promotion or snags a stellar title already possesses these leadership skills. Many people are offered roles based on academic credentials and industry experience, not on whether they could unite a company or spearhead a global campaign. But anyone can become a more passionate, authentic leader by adopting a few strategies.
1. Discover and elevate your voice.
Deb Liu, vice president of Marketplace at Facebook, writes unabashedly of her challenges climbing the corporate ladder. Her issues didn’t stem from poor grades; she was an exemplary scholar. What Liu lacked was the presence to trigger enthusiasm in others. After realizing that she was holding herself back by not sharing her true self, she began to speak up to stand out. It worked.
As Liu discovered, evolving into a leader takes guts and hard work, especially as someone who grew up in an Asian-American culture that valued silence. Uncomfortable as the exercise was, she began speaking up and inviting others to do the same. “Just like a fingerprint, your voice is unique to you. It is your story, perspective, and passion,” Liu explains. “Sharing opens the door to connections, vulnerability, and ultimately trust.” What’s one thing you wish more people knew about you? Start there, and begin sharing.
2. Pull people up and over the next wall.
Want to know who the leaders are on Ninja Challenge 5K races? They’re the ones who remain at obstacles until the bitter end, hoisting teammates to safety and success. Their tenacity allows others to reach their fullest potential, even if they don’t end up winning the race themselves.
“Effective leaders are determined and don’t give up easily when resistance and opposition appear. They use their vision to help others rise above adversity, setbacks, and even failures,” says Preston Pond, co-founder of the Center for Organizational Design. Consider your subordinates at work. Which ones are stuck in a rut and missing out on opportunities to explore their skills? They deserve your extended hand and assistance to fulfill their true potential. Start by uncovering their strengths and interests, and then figure out what projects could take advantage of their skills in those areas. Be the person who believes in fellow team members enough to tell them they deserve to grab the brass ring.
3. Communicate your honest company story.
Gallup reports that only 13% of employees believe that their leaders communicate well with the rest of the company. About the same percentage of workers feel enthusiastic about their company’s future. The best way to inspire these unenthusiastic employees, Gallup says, is to share your leadership story. This is a narrative that depicts your vision for the organization’s future compared to where it is now — and explains how your team will help you get there. Share your company story often, not just at town halls. Send regular emails about progress toward your vision, why it matters to you, and who has helped move the needle toward company goals.
Were your sales numbers down last quarter? Are you going through some tricky leadership transitions? Did you receive some bad press? Don’t leave those plot points out of your narrative. Show how they’re affecting the company overall. Share your analysis on these challenges, as well as how you will try to overcome them. “It’s important for leaders to tell their true, transparent story,” notes Steve Robertson, CEO at Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs. “It’s not just for the external person. As you tell those stories, you define your culture internally, and your team begins to espouse the values that matter to you and to your business.” How your narrative frames the hardships you’re facing will influence how your team responds to the challenges.
Some leaders are born, it’s true. But those who never take their positions seriously are destined for mediocrity. By strengthening your leadership capabilities, you can rise out of the crowd, no matter your title.