When you have leadership aspirations but are unsure whether you have what it takes to be successful, a good place to start is to ask yourself three questions:
- Why do I want to lead?
- Who might I lead?
- How will I influence people to follow my lead?
By working through these self-assessment questions, you will develop a stronger sense of whether you have what it takes to be a leader in the 21st century and the range of possibilities open to you. In addition, your responses can provide plenty of food for thought about:
- the type of leadership role that really inspires you;
- what ‘followers’ need from your leadership; and
- your personal professional development plan in the area of leadership development.
Motivation to lead
The best place to start in assessing your potential for leadership success is with your motivation to lead. What makes you want to lead?
For some people their vision of a future, in which a particular dramatic change will have occurred, provides strong, internal motivation to lead. They succeed as leaders through their passion to make something good happen and because they are also successful in inspiring others to share their vision. Many scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations and organisational transformations have happened this way.
But leadership need not be on a grand scale or entail decades of dedicated effort with a high risk of failure. Opportunities for leadership exist for people in a wide range of situations who ‘see’ what needs to be done and are motivated do something. They also have an ability and willingness to influence others to help make it happen.
Leadership opportunities abound in organisations large and small. Strategic leadership is needed to chart an overall direction; operational leadership is required to realise it. Changes to products or services, change in systems and processes and influencing changes in how people think and act all require leadership.
By way of example, the manager of a multidisciplinary health services team was acutely aware of the stress being experienced by her team members due to the rapid introduction of a new, sector-wide information system. As a member of the steering group for the new system she initially felt torn between her responsibilities in that project and what she saw as her moral responsibility to her team. On reflection she realised that her two roles were not in conflict. By listening carefully to what her team was saying about the new system’s effect on them and the quality of their work, she was able to influence changes in the project’s implementation, which ultimately benefited not only her own organisation but also many others across the sector.
This particular leader was motivated by her respect for colleagues, her desire to create and maintain satisfying workplaces and her knowledge that, due to her standing in the sector, she had the power to influence many others to achieve this.
What motivates you to lead?
Can you point to examples of when you have shown leadership?
Followers and their perspectives
Whether you are contemplating a specific leadership opportunity or just pondering the possibilities, it’s important to think about who you will lead because leadership is fundamentally about influencing people. By being clear about who you aim to lead you are in a position to think about whether you have what it takes to influence them sufficiently and what professional development you might need to increase your capacity to influence.
In reflecting on who your ‘followers’ might be, it’s important to remember that leadership is not the same as management though they are closely related and many organisational roles require elements of both. As a leader you might need to influence people in functional areas other than your own, people higher up the organisational hierarchy and people external to your organisation.
As an example, a highly qualified, young lawyer had a passion for human rights. She realised that she could pursue this interest and, at the same time, gain valuable leadership experience by serving as a volunteer board member for a human rights organisation. The range of people who would come to see her as a leader included the organisation’s CEO, its staff and volunteer workers and a huge number of individuals and organisations with whom her governance work ultimately brought her into contact.
If you have a specific leadership opportunity before you, try this exercise:
Make a list of all the people or groups you will need to influence in order to achieve the outcomes you are aiming for. In a parallel list, see if you can identify
- How each of the people on your list sees the situation you want to change.
- How well do you understand their perspective on the situation?
- How do you think you might be able to influence them to follow your lead?
Leadership and Influence
Although leadership is always about influencing others, the form that influence takes can look and feel distinctly different, depending on factors such as organisational culture, industry setting and the personal style of an individual.
There was a time when ‘leadership’ was frequently equated with a person’s position in a hierarchy and ‘leaders’ influenced people through largely coercive means – prescribing how they should think and act, imposing tight control systems and generally perpetuating the idea that the ‘boss knows best’. Aspiring leaders should be aware that this directive style still defines leadership in some settings. As an aspiring leader it is essential to assess the prevailing style in the setting of interest and to make personal choices about what you are prepared to do to influence others.
Increasingly however, organisations value a very different kind of relationship between leaders and followers; one in which influence is based on consultation, cooperation and collaboration. In these circumstances, leaders are far more likely to depend on their emotional intelligence and a communication style characterised by careful listening, respectful dialogue and acknowledgement of people’s contributions.
- How would you characterise the prevailing approach to leadership in your workplace?
- Does it make you a willing follower?
- What’s your approach to influencing others at work?
- And how successful have you been using this approach?
There is no guaranteed recipe for leadership success but you can significantly improve the odds by undertaking a careful self-analysis and then targeting a leadership opportunity to which you are well suited, in a setting where the prevailing approach to leadership is consistent with your personal values.
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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