There are certain roles that automatically lend themselves to leadership. For example, if you’re a manager responsible for supervising a team of 10, you can bet that there are going to be opportunities within your role to showcase your leadership skills (duh!).
But you don’t have to be in a managerial role to step up and show your leadership potential.
There are plenty of ways to be a leader at every stage of your career—no matter what your role, title, or job responsibilities might be.
But how, exactly, do you do that? Let’s take a look at how to be a leader—whatever your role might be.
Why It’s Important To Showcase Your Leadership Skills
Before jumping into how to be a leader regardless of the role you’re in, it’s important to understand y why leadership skills at every stage of a career are so important in the first place.
And the main reason? If you want to grow into a leadership role, you need to show your supervisors and colleagues that you’re already a leader—regardless of your current job title. Stepping up as a leader in every stage of your career will show your higher-ups that you’re the kind of person who is ready to expand their role and responsibilities.
“Showcasing leadership potential is important at every stage of your career because you never know who is watching,” says Dr. De’Andrea Matthews, Director Of Diversity And Inclusion for Wayne State University and recipient of the Global Forum for Education and Learning’s Top 100 Leaders in Education Award. Matthews started her career at Wayne State as a technician, which was meant to be a temporary role—but established herself as a leader at every stage of her career at the University, eventually landing in her current leadership role. “There may be other opportunities at that institution or through contacts that you currently serve that could be your next interview or career.”
Lauren-Kristine Pryzant, a business coach who specializes in working with emerging leaders similarly states, “Every job you have is an audition for the next role. Often employers want to hire and promote people who already have the necessary skills for the job—so the more you can showcase your leadership potential the more you’ll be perceived as ready for the next step.”
Clearly, establishing yourself as a leader—regardless of your role or job title—is a must. But how exactly do you do that?
Be Proactive in Taking the Lead...
One of the most common (and most important) qualities in a great leader is initiative. So, if you want to be a leader, you need to take a proactive approach to your role.
If you see something that can be improved in your workplace, for example, a communication process or a system for submitting work, don’t just wait around for someone to notice and change it. Instead, take the initiative and suggest the changes yourself.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world”, someone very smart once said. 😉
“If you see a more efficient way of doing things, document it with the data to support [your idea, and] then present it,” says Matthews. “Even if it’s not accepted immediately, [leadership will] know that you are thinking proactively about the company and how to be more efficient with time and resources.”
And if leadership does decide to move forward with your suggestions, you should also think about volunteering to lead (or, at the very least, contribute to) bringing those suggestions to life.
Being proactive and taking the initiative will show your manager or leadership team that you’re ready and willing to take the lead and take on more responsibility—and can help you advance in your career in the process.
...But Don’t Overstep Your Boundaries
Sure, you want to show your supervisors that you have what it takes to be a leader. But that doesn’t mean that you should go rogue and start spearheading projects, making changes, or stepping into responsibilities that you currently don’t have the skills or experience to handle.
“You need to be careful not to overstep the boundaries of your position,” says Pryzant.
Before you actively take on any leadership projects or responsibilities, make sure you’re talking to your direct supervisor. Let them know that you’re ready and willing to step into more of a leadership role—and ask them how they see that working within the parameters of your current role. Could you help out with a new project or initiative within the organization? Even if it’s not directly related to your daily responsibilities, there may be opportunities to get more visibility across other teams and departments.
You should also consider seeking out a leadership mentor within your company. Taking advice and learning from a leader you admire can help you further develop your leadership skills—and help you grow into the leader you have the potential to be. “A good leader must first know how to follow,” says Matthews.
Put In The Work Behind The Scenes
There are two sides to leadership. The first is the visible side; for example, spearheading a project or leading an all-hands meeting. But there’s also a part of leadership that takes place in the background, the unseen work that is crucial but not always recognized—and this is just as important as the more visible aspects of leadership.
If you want to be a leader today, one of the best things you can do is put in the work behind the scenes—and that means doing a lot of reading.
“It takes discipline, but someone desiring leadership should be a reader, as readers are leaders,” says Matthews.
Dedicate at least a few hours a week to reading material that will make you a better leader, whether that’s leadership books or digital content like leadership blogs. If you’re more of an auditory learner, there are also plenty of leadership podcasts you can tune into as well.
You should also make sure you’re reading material that helps keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the industry and within your organization.
“Keep up with industry trends, significant industry news, and how it may impact your field and/or position,” says Matthews. “This knowledge will come in handy and those within earshot will know that you pay attention to what matters most.”
Bottom line? The more you read, the more you’ll grow—as a person and as a leader.
Toot Your Own Horn
If you’re acting as a leader, chances are, there’s a certain level of self-satisfaction. It feels pretty good to know you’re putting in the effort, shouldering more responsibilities, and taking steps to better yourself and your team.
But all that effort you’re putting in isn’t going to help you (officially) grow as a leader within your organization if no one knows about it.
Self-promotion (AKA “tooting your own horn”) is uncomfortable for a lot of people—but pointing out your accomplishments and letting your higher-ups know exactly what it is you’re doing to incorporate more leadership responsibilities into your current role is a must if you want to leverage those efforts into career growth.
If you’re not super comfortable with shedding light on your accomplishments, start by taking steps to acknowledge other team member’s successes. Lindsey Lathrop, Business Coach and Co-Founder of Genclusive explains this tactic: “Normalize self-promotion for yourself and your team…and establish a regular practice of sharing successes with each other.” Lathrop is also a global facilitator of #IamRemarkable, a Google initiative that aims to empower women and other underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace.
“It can be as simple as starting the weekly team meeting with a quick round of wins. That way everyone gets practice saying them out loud (or typing them in a chat) and seeing their colleagues sharing.” - Lindsey Lathrop
Once you get more familiar with sharing your accomplishments in a group setting, push yourself to share your wins, and promote those developing leadership skills and responsibilities in a more strategic way.
“I recommend blocking ‘self-marketing’ time on your calendar,” says Lathrop. “During this time, look for ways to put your leadership developments and accomplishments front and center, whether that’s by requesting a meeting with your manager to discuss your recent leadership projects or drafting a leadership blog post and reaching out to your content team to see if you can get it published on your company blog or sent out to the employee Slack channel.”
The point is, if you want to be seen as a leader, you need to create the visibility of yourself as a leader so make sure you’re taking time every week to put yourself out there—even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
Become A Leader By Leading Up
If you’re in a junior position, it can be hard to figure out how to take on more leadership responsibilities in your current role. Who are you supposed to lead if you’re the most junior person in your department?
But you don’t have to have people below you in order to be a leader. In fact, one of the most effective ways to establish yourself as a leader early in your career is to ”Learn how to lead up,” says leadership development consultant Doug Noll. Leading up refers to taking a leadership role with people within your organization that are further along in their careers (like your manager or supervisor)—and finding ways to both showcase your leadership skills and make their jobs a little easier. “Your boss needs you to lead by anticipating problems, offering solutions, and thinking ahead,” says Noll.
If you’re not sure how to lead or manage up, start by asking yourself, “What skills and knowledge does your boss need? Then, go learn and master them,” says Noll.
Or, if you want to take a more team-oriented approach to leading up, you might ask yourself “What could make your division, department or team more effective, productive, profitable?,” says Noll. “Then, go learn what it will take to achieve better results.”
For example, if you see your manager struggling to get through a mass of emails every day, take the initiative to research email management tools and then draft a presentation that weighs the pros and cons of each and how the tools can solve their current email issues.
‘Leading up’ is a great way to showcase your natural leadership skills, even if you’re at the very beginning of your career—and it can also show your manager that you’re ready for the next step.
“When you lead up, you are demonstrating value in the moment, and more importantly, that you are worth the investment for leadership development,” says Noll. “When promotions come around, who will be remembered? The person that shows the most potential to lead.”
Be The Leader You Want To Be No Matter Your Position Within The Company Org Chart
It doesn’t matter what your role is, the job title you hold, or how many people within your organization you have (or don’t have) reporting to you. You can be the leader you want to be right now—and with these tips, you have a great starting point. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start leading—whatever level you’re on!
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Next: Strike The Balance Between Individual And Team Contributions