At some point in their life, most people will be called upon to lead. Whether it was being the line leader in third grade or the president of a large corporation, specific required skills come along with the job. Today’s world offers significant challenges for both emerging and experienced leaders. Many people don’t start out to be a leader but the paths they have chosen require that they become one. Regardless of the size of the group, its make-up or goals, there are proven principles that can be applied to lead any assemblage of people, even though it may feel like herding cats — or butterflies.
What to Do if You Aren’t a Born Leader
It is sometimes said that leaders are not born, they learn how to lead. Often this means jumping in and “faking it until you make it.” Starting small always makes good sense. Volunteer to be the room mother at your child’s school or the equipment manager for your son’s baseball team. Later, you might take on some simple jobs for a large event. Watch what other, more experienced workers do. Then ask to take on more difficult tasks like serving on a committee or board. There are always people who will appreciate your help and help you in return. Always take note of how the leader of the group brings people together to achieve specific goals.
Applying Three Principles of Military Leadership
There are three important principles that military officers are taught to use when they are responsible for commanding personnel. First, they must know their own job and duties exceedingly well. This gives them credibility not only with their followers but also with their superiors. Troops must have confidence in the leader’s capabilities, knowing that someday they may be used on the battlefield.
Secondly, military officers must know that things can go wrong — and probably will. If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. It is only through considering possible failure modes and then practicing how to handle them that you will understand what must be done quickly in any time-critical situation.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, good leaders take care of their people. Focus not only on what jobs must be done, but on the needs and challenges that individuals may face.
Understand Who Is Being Led
Leaders must connect with the people they lead. Because of the diversity of the groups you may lead, you must tailor your leadership style to their specific needs. The surgeon in the operating room will lead differently from the president of a lady’s charity group. The former is a work group with a specific hierarchy and command structure. The latter is an all-volunteer army that often depends on personal initiative.
A group is made up of individuals who come with different backgrounds, personalities and capabilities. A leader must decide who does what so each person will find their job fulfilling and the group as a whole reaches its peak performance.
Become a motivator, team builder and goal setter. Take responsibility for the group’s outcomes. Share the praise and take responsibility for the blame.
When Failure Happens and How to Learn from It
No leader is immune from failure. It has been said that “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying.” People learn from “trying” and from “pushing the boundaries.” This requires taking risk on occasion. That may lead to poor outcomes along the way and a feeling of failure and disappointment. At times like this, a good boss admits that mistakes were made, corrects them, profits from the experience and shares what was learned.
Most importantly, a good leader encourages the team to continue making progress. People don’t know what they are capable of unless they try. Leaders should welcome suggestions from team members who voice them. Respect the “wisdom of crowds,” knowing that many minds together can accomplish great things.
Understanding Role Models – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Leaders come in all varieties. If you’ve ever worked for a great boss, you can channel his or her capabilities or personality into the work you do. They give frequent praise, credit when it is due, support when needed and they share their secrets for success.
Having a bad leader will show you how easily a project or a plan can go quickly awry. You may end up in an organization that you no longer want to work for. Some role models will teach you what “ugly” means in the way they treat employees and staff. Berating workers, failing to provide feedback about performance, harassment, lack of recognition — all can drive away the most patient of workers. Flee from bad or “ugly” leaders!
So, if you find yourself in a leadership role and are uncertain how to proceed, learn from observing leaders who get great results. Listen to those who have had formal leadership training; they have many lessons to share. Find mentors who are willing to help — they are invaluable. It has been said, “If you can see one, you can be one.” Tailor your leadership style to the people and circumstances of the group you lead. Observe leaders who perform poorly and strive to not emulate them. Fix problems by admitting they exist and learn from them to move forward.
Many people do not set out to become leaders but most of you will find a time and a reason for you to lead. Your community and our world need good leaders. With a little thought, some support and encouragement, you could become a great one!
Rhea Seddon, M.D., is a renowned speaker, Astronaut and the author of Go For Orbit, a memoir about her adventures spending 30 days in space aboard the Space Shuttle. She is also a former surgeon, healthcare executive and entrepreneur. Dr. Seddon speaks to audiences of all kinds on the topics of teamwork, leadership and taking advantage of opportunities.