Are leaders born, or can you decide to become one? Whether your view is from the bottom up, the middle or the top—your decisions make a difference. How you become a leader may surprise you.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve attended major and minor leadership development summits and events. I’ve found the insights I learn to be essential to leading a creative team; along the way circumstances have their way of teaching a willing student.
I’ve identified common themes and qualities that surface repeatedly:
1) You have a leadership role and responsibilities, no matter where you are in an organization.
You may not recognize your role or the responsibilities that accompany it. Either way don’t be a reluctant leader. Your responsibility is to “lead up,” regardless of where you find yourself in an organization.
2) Don’t confuse leadership with a strong personality.
I recently observed a family member step into a leadership role for which she was prepared, but unaware was her responsibility. She embraced the role, took charge, and performed exceptionally well. The role fit her spiritual and leadership gifts, and she had fun with her responsibilities. It made me realize that often the most effective leaders are those who make things happen because they are behind the scenes directing, guiding, and influencing those who appear to be the public leaders.
3) Wise leaders make wise decisions and then manage them.
Don’t be so concerned with what your next steps are until you’ve made a wise decision. A wise decision will lead to wise choices, and it will be easier for you to manage those choices if you’ve made the right decision.
4) A leader needs to know how to deal with ambiguity.
After 30 plus years, I’ve realized the ability to deal with ambiguity is a core attribute required of my particular profession as a creative professional. Whether you are a leader or designer, ambiguity creates “open loops” of unresolved decisions. Open loops create anxiety in our minds and unnecessary anxiety. Learning how to close the open loops teaches us how to ask questions, and enables us to move forward.
5) A leader must be a creative thinker.
Now that you know I’m a creative professional, you’ll understand why this tenet resonates with me. Anticipating needs and thinking beyond perceptions is what I do, and it’s how I’m wired to think so it’s not even second nature—it’s how I lead. Consider how this tenet is related to dealing with ambiguity.
6) A leader is a steward of equipment and resources.
And people. As a leader, you must invest in those with whom you spend your time.
The people with whom you lead are part of your stewardship.
If you’ve inherited a position—some might call that a promotion—the equipment, resources, and people are your inheritance. They are a gift to help you accomplish something greater, together. Don’t squander your inheritance.
7) Behavior and performance are more important than words.
What we say can often be misconstrued or misinterpreted. In an instant or over time, it’s our actions that will define and reveal our intent and our motivations. If in doubt, don’t speak, demonstrate.
- Values define character.
- Character defines culture.
- Culture is character in action.
8) A great leader is aware of the big picture and the details.
Think of the forest and the trees or the horizon and the road. Get up from your desk, walk around, and talk to people. Visit your customers, ask them where they are struggling with business, listen to them. Dream your big dream and have a grand vision for business. God expects that of you. Without an awareness of the big picture, you won’t know what details to pay attention to. If you don’t take steps to accomplish the details, you’ll never realize your vision.
9) Learning to lead yourself is the place to start.
Know yourself, what motivates you and what demotivates you. Consultant Bob Perkins’ book, “Building a Vision for Your Life: Discovering Your Core Motivator—And Why It Matters,” is a practical and insightful book that challenges you with one simple statement: “Know who you are and be it.” It’s a quick read, with lots of examples to help you understand what your core motivators are.
10) The leader’s job is to define reality.
Bid Tribble, one of the original members of the Macintosh design team, described Steve Jobs’ charisma and ability to convince people his way was the only way as a “reality distortion field.” (The term originated from Star Trek). Vision is simply a future reality; a leader manages present reality and defines future reality by aligning every decision with both realities. You must have the courage to define your reality and finish what you start.
11) Leadership is a choice and must be intentional.
Within my marketing agency, we practice design leadership, the discipline of aligning daily choices and decisions with the vision to which we aspire, in our operations and in our counsel our clients. Design leadership weaves together the four dimensions of communication and culture and helps you to be a strategic, inspirational, relational, and aspirational leader.
12) Communication is the language of leadership.
Great leaders are even greater communicators. A leader who understands that communications are the language of leadership creates a culture of shared purpose. The language of leadership isn’t easy or simple. Busy schedules, diverse personalities, different motivations all create leadership challenges.
13) Effective leaders are positive, powerful, and courageous.
A positive leader chooses her words well for they motivate people to follow, advocate, and believe in the mission. A powerful leader is a positive influence on colleagues and peers. A courageous leader has the courage to change and adapt in order to make her vision a reality.
14) Visionary leaders demonstrate their belief in their cause through their actions and clarity of communication.
The impact of leadership is amplified by words that inspire. People want a cause to believe in and a leader to follow. Choose your words well, and they will motivate people to follow—and believe in—your cause. Inspire people, and they will be motivated and engaged. Engage them, and they will become more than followers—they will become champions and believers.
Are leaders born or made? Both. You were born with the potential to become a leader; it’s your obligation not to squander it. You may have been born with the temperament to be a leader, or you may aspire to become one.
Either born or made, the process never ends. Gain wisdom, seek to understand, learn, and practice. Over time, leaders are refined and distilled. The process involves heat and pressure, and the glorious result is the essence of the opportunities, experiences, and time that went into the process.