Signs of a Leader (Hint: They might not be the boss.)
This is the first part of a two-part series. Next time: how to find leaders worth following.
It’s a simple question, but perhaps not an easy answer – what are the signs of a leader, as opposed to just a “boss”? Are you just someone people report to? It’s different to head up a team on an organisational chart, to put in performance reviews and assign work to people. Yes, you’re the boss.
But being a leader isn’t really about any of that. You can be a leader even if no one reports to you on the organisational chart. You don’t have to assign work projects for people to follow you. And people can care about earning your respect even if you aren’t part of their formal reporting line.
You might already have more than a sneaking suspicion about whether you’re a real leader or not. But before you get too down on yourself (or too self-congratulatory), stop and consider how you approach your role at work.
These questions will help you better understand if you have the signs of a leader:
Who are you when something goes wrong? Things go wrong in life. Mistakes, miscalculations, misunderstandings – stuff just happens. It’s annoying at best, and at worst, can have really material consequences. When it happens at the office, what’s your gut reaction? Is it to wonder (aloud or to yourself) whose fault it is? What if there are rumours of people being made redundant – do you try to find other opportunities for your team? Or do you just start negotiating a package for yourself?
Signs of a leader include someone who jumps into a room with their team to update them, the person who reassures them that they remain confident in them. If your team member is responsible for the screw-up, do you take as much responsibility for their mistake — as much you would take credit for their achievements.
Did you follow the leader? Think back to the early years of your career, and the bosses or other influencers that you worked around. Who did you most respect and why? Ideally, this should be someone you’d work for again, or shaped your career significantly. Now – how closely do you think your leadership style mirrors theirs?
My guess is that whomever you picked as your favourite leader was someone whose values and priorities you admired, not one who got you a bigger bonus or shared company gossip. And it certainly wouldn’t be someone who you felt didn’t know your interests and your long term plans. Signs of a leader are those who offered advice and provided opportunities. Essentially, they’re the kind of leader you’d like to be. Are you?
Are you being followed? If you’re an experienced leader at this point, you’ve likely led several teams in different contexts. And you’ve built relationships with countless more people on projects, as customers, or vendors. Whether you led big teams or none at all, ask yourself this: if you had to build a team from your current network, could you? Are you confident that enough of the people you’ve worked with would follow you to a role at a new company? (And don’t envision the coolest company in the hippest city, which help as pull factors – this is about who wants the opportunity for you to lead them.)
The signs of a leader is one who really cares about their team, not just sees them as help to their own success.
At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple. You’re not a leader if no one is following you. You might be a boss, and people report up to you. But that’s it. And consider the fact that being a leader isn’t just good for others – it’s good for you. Being focused on yourself is not sustainable in the long term. When there’s uncertainty at the company or a crisis of some sort, it’s too late to start inspiring people. Remember that it’s your responsibility to take care of people, to have their back. And one day they might have yours.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.