Is It Follow the Leader or Lead the Followers?

Leadership.  A critical characteristic for career success and one most people believe they understand and possess, leadership is not a word that lends itself to a brief, simple definition.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once opined that he could perhaps never define the meaning of pornography.  He went on to say, however, “I know it when I see it.”  Much the same can be said for leadership.  When going for interviews, applicants are advised to “dress for success.”  When pursuing career advancement that requires demonstrating leadership qualities, professionals are advised to “fake it until you make it.” 

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Let’s put aside the discussion of whether leadership can be learned, and let’s assume for our purposes that everyone has the potential to be a leader.  Unless realized, of course, such potential is of no use to the individual or the organization with which he or she is associated.  So, how then does one develop leadership potential, and, perhaps even more importantly, how does one exhibit it in such a way that it benefits both the career aspirations of the individual and the goals of the enterprise?

Those who are truly intent on showing that their leadership capabilities will benefit the organization should remember one very simple but important rule:  “My ego is not my amigo.”   If it appears that “self” takes priority over “team,”  this is likely to lead to the perception that personal ambition is what motivates the individual–not the advancement of organizational goals.

It may seem that there is a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario here:  How does an individual demonstrate leadership qualities without being granted the authority to lead?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Anticipate opportunities to problem-solve:  By staying aware of the projects and challenges in a company, department, or even simply an organizational goal, an individual can display foresight, issue-identification, judgment, and the ability to be proactive.
  • Volunteer.  Whether related to the job or to an activity that involves the community, volunteering provides a chance to become visible not only to decision-makers but also to others both within and outside the organization who might be of benefit to advancing an individual’s career.
  • Actions are much louder than words.  Spend less time listening to how others say to lead and more time observing those who actually do lead and apply the lessons learned. 
  • Rinse and repeat.  There is no end to the process of becoming a leader.  Leadership is truly about the journey– not the destination.