A reflection on true leadership, influence and the characteristics of successful leaders
As a young professional just out of college, I decided I wanted to manage people. Leadership seemed so glamorous—having the authority to make decisions, being in charge of a department and making more money.
As I moved up the leadership ranks in my career, however, I realized leadership was very different than my first impression. It wasn’t about prestige, power, money or authority. It was about service, humility, relationships and influence. In fact, being a leader wasn’t as exciting and glamorous as I had expected. It came with a lot of responsibility, a lot of headaches and some choices that weren’t always easy to make. There were many moments of impact and fulfillment, but there were also times of high demands and high stress.
I’ve had the blessing of a few excellent leaders during my career who modeled great leadership. I have also had several bosses who taught me what not to do. These leaders were focused on themselves—how much power and control they had and how to expand their turf. Although working for the latter wasn’t inspiring or easy, I learned from these experiences. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader, and having the desire to lead and the skills to lead are two different things. Having the desire to be a leader is important, but desire must be met with modern and influential leadership skills.
Leadership isn’t about working our way up the corporate ladder to one day finally arrive and say, “Wow, I’ve made it.” True leadership is a journey, not a destination. Leadership is a state of being, not a role one fills while at work. And the work toward leadership isn’t just important while we are preparing for a leadership role. In fact, once you’re appointed to a leadership role, the real work has just begun.
We all know people in leadership roles who are not true leaders. Being promoted and granted a title does not make one a leader. Leadership is not an appointment, it’s a process. You become a leader. It’s not just directing a team, signing off on paperwork, delegating responsibility or setting goals. Exceptional leaders look outside themselves and seek a bigger impact in their organization and perhaps even in the world. Leadership is not just about learning a few new tools or strategies; it’s learning a new way of being.
Most people look at what they will gain when they become a leader; very few look at what they can give. Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility. True leadership is much bigger than a fancy office, more money, and the ability to be in charge and call the shots. True leadership is about service: serving your employees by developing them and helping them reach their highest potential and personal goals, serving the organization by contributing your best to achieve the goals, and serving your members by having their best interest in mind and fulfilling their needs.
I believe we have a leadership crisis in this world. Many leaders aspire for the title and for the prestige and power, and some strive for a leadership role because they see it as the next step in their career. But few people view leadership as an opportunity for impact. Few people have the competencies and skills necessary for influential leadership.
It is common among organizations to promote the technical superstar to a leadership role because it seems like the next best step for their career development. While some excellent employees may make great leaders, the competencies required for successful leadership are different than what is required for technical excellence. We should evaluate future leaders on leadership competencies, not just technical skills, and ensure that our future leaders understand what it takes to be successful in leadership before they are promoted.
Characteristics of Influential Leaders
So, how do you know you are on the right path to leadership?
There are several characteristics that influential leaders possess:
1. A dedication to continuous learning: Influential leaders strive to improve every day. They read books, listen to podcasts and seek to gain more information about their industry as well as how to become a better leader and person. They are very self-aware, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and are not afraid to hire others to fill the gaps. They are always in a state of learning and encourage their employees to grow and develop.
2. A focus on others: Influential leaders aren’t in leadership for themselves, they are there to make an impact on others. They provide clarity, direction, appreciation and support to their employees. They make their employees a priority and invest time and effort in helping each individual reach their peak potential. They are not afraid to provide constructive feedback—they know it’s about facilitating improvement and is in service of the greater good.
3. Emotional intelligence: Influential leaders realize that great leadership isn’t just about driving the agenda and getting results. They understand the importance of people, and they are approachable, compassionate and supportive. They’re also great listeners. They understand that employees are people who have desires, goals and fears.
4. High integrity: Even in the midst of organizational change and uncertainty, influential leaders cultivate an environment of stability. They do this by being dependable, honest, trustworthy and respectful. They follow through on their word and possess a high level of integrity. They don’t always have all the answers, and they are not afraid to admit mistakes. They model behaviors that reinforce integrity and trust.
Certainly, effective leaders need some talent, confidence and strategic ability. But what separates the mediocre leaders from the exceptional leaders are the qualities that go beyond technical and strategic mastery. They are skills that cultivate an environment of engagement, trust, loyalty and growth.
The world needs more of these leaders. The old paradigm of leadership—command and control—is not inspiring to employees today. We have moved into a new paradigm of leadership, where employees want to feel a connection with their company and want to do meaningful work. We need the next generation of leaders to bring change to our organizations and cultivate true and influential leadership.
Leadership is not the best career path for everyone. In our organizations, we need to start promoting people for leadership competencies and not technical skills. And we need to stop promoting the superstars to leadership roles just because we think it’s the next natural step. It’s not the best next step for everyone. We need people in leadership roles who are willing and capable of serving others and focusing significant time, energy and effort on the development of their people.
We need to create a new standard of leadership. Not everyone is meant to be a leader. Think twice before you promote the superstar.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.