Don’t be afraid – be a leader (or, leadership in small bites)

Posted on June 4, 2010


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I’ve been called to lead many things, from professional staff groups at a large corporation, to project teams for industry associations, to martial arts trainees.  I don’t usually seek out leadership roles, but they seem to find me anyways, from time to time.

Some things I’ve learned about leadership:

  • Most people avoid leadership opportunities, either because they don’t want the extra responsibility, or they are afraid that they’re not up to it.
  • Leadership is NOT about having your followers do what you tell them to do.
  • Leadership does not require that you be perfect – or even outstanding – in every way.
  • Many times, leadership means helping your followers do what they already know how to do (and getting out of the way)

Given what I’ve learned about leadership, there’s little reason to fear being the leader.  Here’s my list of common fears of leadership – and how I would deal with them:

  1. It’s too much work for me to handle. There IS a lot of work tied to being a leader, and it is easy to get bogged down.  Learn to say NO.  Tell your people NO emails after 5pm – and follow your own guidelines.  Set an example by not sending emails out after 5.  Choose NOT to do useful things – in favor of doing ONLY fabulous things.  Make sure you understand, deep in your bones, exactly what your group’s mission is – and stick to it (and help your people stick to it).  All the nice to haves that are not perfectly aligned with your group’s mission?  Let someone else (outside your group) do them.  I’ll tell you what – the amount of work might (or might not) be greater for a leader – but the leader gets to choose what s/he works on.
  2. I’m not good at [analysis, planning, speaking, writing, . . . insert your own perceived leadership gap].  You’re right.  Good for you for knowing your own limits!  But you ARE good at something.  So focus on that something – and find a partner who can shore you up in your gap area.  Great at strategy, but terrible at execution?  Find someone who executes projects with military precision and make them your partner.  Passionate visionary but afraid of public speaking?  Let someone else do the talking.  Don’t be afraid to share the responsibility – and the kudos when things go well – and don’t worry what others might think.  You’re doing your helpers and yourself a favor by grooming talent, maximizing the value you and your helpers provide and doing what it takes to move the group in the right direction.
  3. People will criticize me. Yup, it’s true.  Once you stick your neck out, your head becomes an easier target.  The more you lead, the more opportunities to make a mistake, and the more opportunities to make someone upset.  But anyone who wants to live a purpose-driven life must take risks and must experience failure, in order to reach their goal.  Doesn’t matter if you’re in the lead position or if you’re just a passionate member of the group – so why not lead?
  4. I don’t have good ideas/I don’t have a vision. A funny thing happens when you assume the reins of leadership.  You realize that people are counting on you.   People rely on you, look to you for guidance.  Suddenly you don’t have a choice about having a vision, you just have to do it.  If that seems intimidating – ask for help! Your people have great ideas about how to get things done, lead a brainstorming session and let everyone else come up with the good ideas.   Your job is to make sure the discussion is productive and to take the best ideas and help your team execute them.  You will have to choose.  But that’s what leaders are for, right?
  5. I’m shy/short/bald. Well – that would be true whether you were a leader or not, right?  There do seem to be an abundance of leaders who are tall, have good hair and connect easily with others.  But even if you are leading a team of ONE you must make do with what you’ve got.  That’s true whether you’re dealing with genetic makeup or lack of money or lack of experience.  Stretch what you’ve got.  If you must, shore up what you need – take marketing or public speaking classes.  Don’t be proud – ask for help.  If you want to lead a meaningful life, you will overcome your own constraints.  Also – develop a great sense of humor. 🙂

I have learned so much from my experiences in leading.  There are so many benefits you gain, including honing skills you might not have realized you had, making connections with people outside your normal circle of influence, being exposed to new ways of thinking and learning that I can solve sticky problems when I don’t have an alternative.

My challenge to you:

Look for opportunities to lead.  Step up and say, “I’ll do that” when the opportunity arises, whether it’s the opportunity to coach a little league team or the opportunity to lead a big project at work.  Even if the opportunity seems small – like volunteering for a little project – you will learn something.  Even if the group is just you, you’ll learn from handling the activity like a leader.  If asked, say yes.  Better yet, don’t wait to be asked.  Step up.  Try it.  You’ll grow.

Anybody have a good success (or disaster) story about leadership?

thanks, Ami

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