To become a leader, start leading today. Most people wanting to move into leadership are waiting to be anointed. They are hoping that one day that they will be asked to kneel and have the sword touch their shoulders dubbing them as a leader. Sorry – it does not happen that way.
My move into leadership was simply a decision to start. I did not need permission from others. I did not need a title.
See, the hardest part of leadership is the struggle of leading yourself well. When you do that, you suddenly find yourself leading others.
While I sought out mentors and read books on leadership – the best thing I did was to just start leading.
1. Act – Start Leading Today by Acting the Part
The absolute first step to take in anything is to get your thinking right. In terms of leadership, start to tell yourself you are a leader and act the part. Changing your thinking will automatically (over time) change how you serve and how you communicate. So for now, focus on thinking.
When I was at BellSouth (AT&T), I hated my job. I mean hated. Every Monday was miserable. Actually – every day was miserable. Two to three levels of leadership above me were jerks and poor examples of leadership. Morale was terrible. I was looking for a way out. But as an engineer who did not know anything else, I felt trapped.
My escape was an interest in and study of the psychology of success. I started reading anything about the subject. After reading one book by Dennis Waitley, I realized that a lot of my grief was my own creation.
While I could not control my leaders, my company, or really much at all about work, I was in control of my reaction to it. They could tell me what to do, but they could not tell me how to feel and how to think. Later that same week, I heard Earl Nightingale utter these words “We become what we think about.” I had become miserable, angry, frustrated, and depressed. It was showing up in every aspect of my life and in my health. I wanted to become something else.
So, out of desperation, I started experimenting. I decided I would start thinking like the CEO of BellSouth. My day to day activities would be focused on how he would deal with the situation. While I did not know the CEO, I had the general idea that he might see a bigger picture of things.
The Result of Changing My Thinking
When my team members brought me issues – which was at least every 5 minutes – I would stop and think “What would the CEO do?” My focus started to be around serving the customer and impacting the bottom line of the company.
I would direct my team to take action to best serve the company and the customer. I would call other teams to get things moving and even call angry customers.
Being an introvert – I had a hard time calling the other teams – but thinking I was in the CEO role helped me get past this. It was really kinda fun. In a few days, I felt like I was doing something to help people and started enjoying the experience. I even began to enjoy calling angry customers so I could smooth over the issues.
At the end of the first week in my new Pseudo-CEO role, one of the ladies who worked for me said – “What has happened – you seem different?”
I had not thought about it – I was just playing the role. I asked her what she meant and she went on to tell me everyone was getting along better and she was enjoying work more. She told me – “Whatever you are doing, please do not stop.”
2. Ask – Start Leading Today by Asking for Help
You do not know everything. You never will. I used to hate to ask for advice – I thought it made me look weak. But truth is, I do not know a lot. Seek counsel. The best leaders get a lot of input.
When I started thinking like the CEO, I would stop and ask people how to do things. I would even have them show me their job.
One day I had a technician show me how to reroute traffic in the network. I watched and was impressed by his skill. I told him – “Wow, that is impressive – not sure I understood it all – but I am impressed.” He looked at me with a big smile and said “Thanks!” Gee – I did not mean to give him a compliment – but I think I did.
But, him showing me how he rerouted networks came in handy later when I was working with another team. I had seen it done – and knew it could be done – even if I did not know how to do it.
Leaders ask a lot of questions. They do not make decisions in a vacuum. They are always learning and are not afraid to go to the place where the action happens.
Jack Welch – former CEO of GE (and one you could learn from) was famous for going into a factory and asking the people on the line how things worked. He wanted to be connected to all levels. He was not a micromanager or stepping over his other leaders – he was getting to where he understood how things worked.
> Start with the work you do, who does it impact? Go to the people who use your work and ask them how they use it.
> Ask your boss how they made a tough decision you have seen lately. Get them to explain their thinking process.
> Reach out to a friend in another department and ask them to show you around what they do.
3. Dress – Start Leading Today by Dressing the Part
The common logic is that if you want to be a leader, dress like those a level or two above you.
This is not always a good idea. If you are in a dirty job, wearing a suit might be expensive – and just look stupid. But, you might also be in a company where your leaders dress just like you already.
Either way, just dress the part and dress as neat as possible. Appearances can make a big positive difference, but they are more likely going to make a negative difference. I have seen several cases where judgments were made about people because they were underdressed. You may know of a successful CEO who wears shorts to work. Fine – that may work for them – but do not count on it working for you.
You do not have to stand out and be dressed nicer than everyone around you, but you do need to look the part. Dress as nice as your leaders.
Dress has a dramatic impact. If you dress the part, people assume you are the part – even when you are not at work. While I was playing the CEO at work, I started dressing nicer. We usually wore nice clothes with a tie. I went for suit and tie.
I noticed other people treated me different – even people who knew me. In meetings, in the hallway, and even in the grocery store, I found I was being treated differently when I was dressed professionally. Was it the clothes or how I felt and acted wearing them that made me seem more confident and therefore made others respect me more. No idea. I just know the result.
> Take note of the typical outfit by your leaders. Start to move in the direction of what they are wearing using what you have. Focus on the big things first.
> Ask a friend or coworker who you think dresses well to evaluate how you dress – and be honest with you.
Just a Thought
All this said, just in case you do not think you are ready for leadership, then look around. You are already leading. They may be your team members, your family, your friends, and maybe even your boss. Take a moment and think about the leadership responsibilities you already have and apply the appropriate actions, asking for help, and dress to grow your influence.
If you are leading (or hoping to lead) in the area of technology, check out a way to boost your leadership through our Master in Engineering Management program.