Leadership. It is a big word, and it gets thrown into lots of professional conversations, but not everyone is using the word in the same way. I’ve spoken to people who believe leadership is the responsibility of the people appointed to be in management. Others want it, but feel they don’t have it (perhaps they are waiting for someone to give it to them). Many miss the essence of leadership, it is within each of us - we all have the capacity for it. At a basic level self-management is effectively demonstrating leadership, albeit in a narrow construct. Leadership is not something that comes with a job title or appointment; leadership is everyone’s responsibility (not just managements). As an example, if you choose to apply disruptive (negative) behaviours in an environment, whatever leadership is present now needs to focus on the disruption, often at the cost of something else (we don’t work or live in vacuums). Choosing to work in a way that minimizes disruptions allows more valued activities to take place consistently; this is one application of leadership. So how do you grow and exercise your leadership skills? Emotional intelligence has leadership components within it, work on your EI skills and you work on your leadership skills at the same time to leverage what you have and build what you need. But how do we do that? The topic of the next few blogs will look at this in more detail, to start lets look at leadership and how we can exercise it regardless of position or authority.
Little things make a big difference, and leadership (at it’s core) is made up of small consistent acts that require us to move beyond ourselves. Leadership is essentially the ability to meet others where they are when that is what is called for. It requires awareness, self-management, and communication skills. It is fed by curiosity, patience and observation. Anyone can practice these behaviours, we each have the opportunity to do this every day. Look at this through a more mundane part of many people’s daily lives, traffic. What do you do when you are on a busy highway (maybe you are late, held up by traffic) and a car would like to merge in ahead of you? What are your first thoughts and feelings? A normal human response would be “You’ve got to be kidding!” or maybe “What makes you so important that you should get in ahead of me?” Contextually it may make a difference how the car approaches the merge (fast and pushy or slow and cautious), but at the end of the day the action that will cause the least amount of conflict and help the situation (rather then exacerbate it) is to let the car in, regardless of the driving style exhibited by the other driver. From a traffic community perspective it is the safest option for all concerned; the driver looking to merge, you and other drivers on the road. Allowing the merge to happen in a measured way keeps the pressure off all the drivers and no one is snuggling up to bumpers or exhibiting other behaviours that create more risk in rush hour (flipping the bird for example); it is a win-win. However, many of us feel this is an imposition and inconvenience. We reduce the space between our car and the bumper in front of us (becoming unsafely close) and curse the audacity of the driver who chose not to apply more forethought and get in the lane they needed earlier. We may block them out without thinking about the fact the other driver might be new to this route and unable to apply that forethought….the other driver might have an emergency you will never be aware of or they may have needs that if we were aware of them would allow us to happily make room for them in the flow of cars. But traffic doesn’t work that way; so the people who drive the cars need to.
Reaching beyond your own emotions (“idiot driver!”) to do the safest thing (let the car merge in) is an act of leadership. When you do this you are exercising empathy, social responsibility, objectivity, impulse control and flexibility. This demonstrates a lot emotional intelligence in a circumstance where you have anonymity; leadership is also about what you can do for others when there is nothing in it for you, like the simple act of letting a car merge in traffic. We have many opportunities to do this throughout our day, riding the bus or train (letting people maneuver around us, giving up our seat for another when we are close to our stop), holding doors to allow others to safely navigate them, etc. In meetings we do this through active listening and a focus that takes us outside of the dialogue that may be constantly running through our heads. We become present for others and by doing so can contribute at a higher level to our friends, family, organizations and community. This is something many of us do without giving it much thought and you may not have viewed this as exercising leadership. However, successful leaders do this consistently, it is ever-present. By successful leaders I don’t mean those in charge of profitable companies, I mean those who contribute to fiscally responsible enterprises and healthy organizational environments. Win-win.
People who are chosen (from a field of candidates) to become managers typically have been exhibiting leadership behaviours in their current role and beyond. Interview processes help to determine if leadership skills are present; for a candidate who practices them as a matter of course they shine through. For a candidate stretching to display the required attributes in the interview it quickly becomes apparent that they don’t apply leadership consistently in their daily lives. I’ve been on the interviewer side of the table in hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews – very rarely can someone fake consistent leadership attributes in that type of process. If you’ve ever heard someone remark that “you either have leadership skills or you don’t” this is what they are referring to. Leadership is a choice, one we all have the power to make in our daily activities. Do you choose to be a leader?
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.