Leadership is not something I considered much when I entered the workforce after law school. The buzzword at the time was “management” and it seemed to me that being a manager reflected how important you were to the company and, consequently, how much you got paid. So, naturally, I aspired to be a manager. My ultimate goal back then was to get to the top of the food chain—to be the manager of managers—because I assumed it came with the biggest pay check and that was my definition of success. I never really thought of what happened after one got to the top, and I certainly didn’t contemplate leaving once I got there. But as I progressed in my career, I started noticing that some of the people I reported to were not just partners or heads of departments or senior executives. They had certain qualities to them that made me want to follow in their footsteps. They had a vision and a clear path to achieving it, they were approachable and accessible, and they were lifting people up. In short, they were leaders. Still, I was convinced that one had to be born a leader and I didn’t think I had it in me. Little did I know, as do now, that leadership is a muscle that we are all born with, but it is one that requires regular exercise for maximum effect.
Here are a few tips on how to develop that leadership muscle I picked up from various leaders I have had the pleasure of interacting with in recent years.
Grow your confidence. There are certain external factors that help us grow as leaders, including our family circumstances, the kind of schools and universities we attend, the people we befriend, and the hardships we go through. But there is nothing more vital to the leadership muscle than self-confidence. So how does one grow confidence? According to one of my mentors, it comes down to the power of the mind. Indeed, your subconscious mind is a powerful tool that manifests whatever it absorbs and imprints about you, so be careful what you tell yourself. For instance, if you’re constantly telling yourself that you are not good enough or that you will never amount to anything, it will probably affect your self-esteem and the decisions that you make for yourself. So it’s important that you avoid bashing yourself and that you replace negative self-talk with affirmations. Sometimes I'll make a mistake while working on a file and I'll suddenly hear a voice in my head saying: "You're so stupid." Fortunately, I have learned over time how to cancel that thought by affirming, "You are in the process of learning and it's okay to make mistakes." Another important aspect of building confidence is taking the time to identity why it is that you are putting yourself down at that particular moment. Usually, it comes down to fear, and the interesting thing I’ve come to realize is that fear doesn’t like light. Once exposed, it tends to dissapear.
When you are called upon to assume a leadership role, go for it. What this means is that someone sees potential in you and wants to help you succeed. Admittedly, some people are reluctant leaders and it can take them several years to get out of that headspace. They think that they are not cut out for a particular task or job, they let their insecurities take over, and they end up losing out on career advancement opportunities. I was once told that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of fear, and the same applies here. Sometimes, the only way to get ahead is to walk through the fear, so summon all your courage and just do it. It will pay off eventually.
Learn from bad bosses. Leaders will influence you, urge you to be your best, correct you in a way that affirms you, and put you in places where they want you to grow. Bad bosses, on the other hand, will not take your needs into consideration and will try to intimidate you. They tend to be overly critical and can sometimes be quite intolerant, insisting that you do things their way or take the highway. Some of them may even take credit for your work and may be quick to throw you under the bus when things go wrong. If it becomes intolerable, by all means get out of the kitchen, but always consider it a learning experience. These types of people can teach you how not to lead and they can also help you identify the sharp edges of your own personality that require a bit of polishing. For example, if you are in the habit of being judgmental when reviewing other people’s work, try and build them up instead and show them how they can improve. Correct them in a way that is not condescending or intimidating. And if you need to deliver a hard message, try to soften the blow by doing it in a diplomatic and respectful way. Those are some of the qualities of being a leader. Additionally, learn from people who have made mistakes and corrected them. In so doing, you will shorten your learning curve and you will be able to reach your goals much faster.
Leadership is a journey and there’s always room for improvement. I strongly believe that things unfold the way they are supposed to, and in that sense, it is futile to linger on past events. Even if you miss an opportunity today, a better one may present itself tomorrow so there’s no use crying over spilled milk. But that’s not to say that you should just wait for things to fall into your lap. As with everything, practice makes perfect, so continue learning, live life to the fullest, and make every moment count.
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