Learning To Lead Without Being In Charge

Before we talk about techniques for being a leader, it might be a good idea to ask yourself why you want to be one. For that matter, what do you think a leader is? Is a leader the one in charge, or the person recognized by the team as being the smartest and most capable — or maybe just the loudest? Does it mean you get paid the most or get to make all the decisions? These may be somewhat true in certain situations, and they’re not all bad, but we’re going to focus on a different theory of what a leader is, and how to get there.

Being a leader in our construct doesn’t have a lot to do with being the boss. It’s about providing support, building up others, and maximizing the success of your team because one of the best motivations for wanting to be a leader is wanting to ensure the success of your team. A successful leader gives direction by the consent of those being directed. If a team doesn’t believe in their leader, then no matter how smart or talented the person is, the ultimate outcome will be failure. So, how can you begin the process of being recognized as a good leader?

Be useful

This is always a good first step, but, as with most things, it requires balance. Being useful is not the same as being over-eager or showing off. Being useful can be as simple as getting a jug of water for the team to share while working, or it can mean making sure that your work is always done well when you say it will, and having a little time left-over to help anyone who can use it. Being useful to the people on your team tends to make them glad you’re around, which brings us to our next step.

Build bridges

On your journey toward becoming a leader, you will likely soon recognize that it’s most about people. Having positive relationships with the people around you is essential to good leadership. You’ll need their trust and support, so a great way to start is by giving exactly that. Building bridges with people doesn’t mean sucking-up, manipulation, or office politics. It means taking the time to empathize with your colleagues, understand their challenges, and give them the support they need to succeed. It doesn’t all rest on your shoulders, not yet anyway — so look for small opportunities to contribute, and help where you can while still keeping up with your own responsibilities. It also means celebrating others who do a great job. It’s a big world and there’s room for lots of superstars, so take the time to recognize the success of others.

Build your knowledge

While you’re busy empathizing and supporting people around you, take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from them. The people you work with are a fantastic resource for learning about different aspects of the industry you’re in. If you ever have the opportunity to lead a team that has people more senior than you on it, take it — and then learn everything you can from them. Leading a team doesn’t mean that you have to know everything and have all the answers, but a good leader should have a reasonable understanding of the roles and responsibilities they’re responsible for. The CEO of a software company doesn’t have to come from a computer science or engineering background, but understanding the skills their developers possess and the challenges they face will make them much more effective than a leader who doesn’t.

Make yourself obsolete

This one seems counterintuitive, but, in our theory of leadership, it’s essential. Do you have an opportunity to hire someone who’s better at your job than you are? Take it. Always surround yourself with the smartest, most effective people you can. Learn everything you can from them. Use them to challenge yourself and make yourself better. Do you have the opportunity to create systems and processes that will make much of the work you currently do unnecessary? Great. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can move on to doing better and more valuable work. Show me a shortsighted employer that fires someone with that kind of initiative and value, and I’ll show you a place you don’t want to work at anyway.

Rinse and repeat

For those keeping score, you’re now a person who does good work and delivers on time. You’re empathetic of your team’s challenges, try to lend a hand when and where you can, and cheer on the successes of those around you. The team trusts you and depends on your broad knowledge to help make the hard calls. You’ve helped to create more efficient and effective ways of doing things, and helped to hire the smartest, most talented people available.

Does this sound like someone you would want as a leader? Me too.

Originally published May 8, 2018 at https://xd.adobe.com.

Product strategist, designer, writer, public speaker, urban rancher. @burtbrumme | linkedin.com/in/kkrumme

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