Don’t wait for a leader. Become one!
When we think of strong leaders, either throughout history or within our own careers, we often fall into the trap of thinking that those leaders were born, not made. But people like Winston Churchill, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and so many more didn’t pop into the world as fully formed history makers … they grew, struggled, failed, and learned how to step into the roles that were, as often as not, thrust upon them rather than sought.
That means that leadership is a skill, not an inherent character trait, and it’s a skill anyone can learn. All you need is a desire to improve, a plan to get there, and a commitment to practicing (and occasionally failing) until you get where you want to be. Here are some ways you can get started today!
History can teach us a lot, and learning about the journeys that shaped renowned leaders will show you how trial and error, adversity, and practice helped them become the people we look up to today. As you look at their experiences, note the characteristics, habits, and belief systems that shaped them, and look for ways to emulate those traits..
It’s one thing to admire a world-famous historical figure for the ages, but if you want to step up your game in the here and now, you’ll need a contemporary role model to work with. Look within your industry to see who you respect or who has the skills … or job … you want to have. Reach out to a few until you find someone you click with and who is willing to help you shape the skills you have and build some new ones. Don’t be intimidated to ask for mentorship! Many high-achieving people are excited to share their expertise and build the next generation of leaders.
Leaders need to inspire, motivate, resolve conflict, and instill a sense of mission in their teams, and the common denominator to all these skills is communication. Start by assessing your own competencies in written, verbal, interpersonal, and group communication. The best way to do this is to ask supervisors and peers to honestly rate your skill in each area so you can pick a few to focus on. (Make sure these individuals understand that you’re serious about improving your skills and that you won’t sulk at well-intentioned feedback.) Try to get them to be as specific as possible. For example, are your written reports on the mark but your emails too long? Are you good at addressing groups but not at collaboration? Once you know what skills you need to boost, you can make a plan to improve.
Well, at least back to class. True leaders never stop learning, and seminars, online classes, and community colleges offer a wide range of options for skill building. Subscription services like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy, and more offer courses and tutorials on things like goal setting, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, as well as specific business skills and software that you may need to grow into a more advanced role. And thanks to a movement called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), you can take free or low-cost courses from world-class universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, and many more. With so many options, you’re likely to find professional instruction on any leadership skill you want to strengthen.
You’ll need discipline to apply yourself to leadership development and practice what you learn. Schedule weekly time to devote to your training and set up regular check-ins with your mentor. If your goal is to advance in your career, then you need to treat this practice as seriously as all other aspects of your business life.
The best way to learn anything is by doing. Are there tasks you can take on that will give you leadership experience? A special project that needs to championing? Don’t wait for someone to offer you a chance to lead … seek out or create your own opportunities. You’ll gain visibility within your organization and build an image as someone willing to go the extra mile.
If your current job doesn’t offer enough leadership opportunities, or if you want to grow your network, look for community organizations or charities that can benefit from your skills or help you develop new ones. A small nonprofit may be desperate to find someone to lead a committee or spearhead a fundraising campaign, and your participation can help you build both your brand and your accomplishments at the same time. And if you’re looking for an opportunity to improve your public speaking skills, Toastmasters International has more than 14,000 chapters and 280,000+ members dedicated to helping professionals become more confident speakers.
Leadership skills don’t come overnight … they’re built by hard work and repetition. Remember that what you practice becomes stronger, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t lead until you feel like you have all the skills. Lead, and the skills will follow. Will you have some missteps? Certainly. You fell off your bike a few times before you were able to whiz around on two wheels, and you’ve probably burned a few dinners while learning to cook. This is no different. Embrace the process and have confidence that over time, you can grow into the leader you want to be.