I was recently talking to a friend about the concept of why people decide to follow someone. Whether they are their leader at work, their sports coach, or some other type of role where they would be in a leadership capacity. As we started to talk about the foundational aspects of why someone would want to follow their leader, there were some common threads, and patterns that emerged during our conversation.
The first common thread was that people will follow another person they respect and perhaps admire. Another trait which was discussed was that the person could be depended upon to steer you and others they lead in the right direction. The leaders were also strong communicators, and the most successful ones, appreciated hearing alternative opinions which could be factored into their decision making. In other words, they didn’t subscribe to only have “yes” people on their team.
Having a strong conviction about your beliefs, and not being intimidated about conveying and carrying them out is another characteristic I have observed some of the best leaders embody. They also have mastered the art of being humble, and allowing those who follow them, to see them being vulnerable and authentically themselves. These are in fact some of the traits which you might think would be contrary to them being a strong leader, but in fact, it is these qualities which those they lead both respect and admire.
The balance that leaders have in being both strong and vulnerable isn’t always easy to see. Often the ones who have cracked the code on being able to demonstrate both are not only exceptional leaders, but have the ability to sustain their leadership over a longer period of time. Why? Because of the fact that they are not having to portray being someone else’s version of a leader, and can authentically embrace being themselves.
I was a guest lecturer recently in an advanced level Organizational Behavior class. My topic was focused on team dynamics, and the contributing aspects of what goes into building a strong team. Naturally the element of having a strong leader came up during this discussion. When it did, I asked the students to raise their hand if they wanted to be a leader. About half of the class raised their hand. I then asked the ones who raised their hands to give me a reason they wanted to be a leader, and this is where the discussion took a different turn.
The turn the discussion took was that when I asked the students to articulate why they wanted to be a leader, they had a much more difficult time doing so. Perhaps this was because thinking about being a leader, and becoming and being one are three entirely different scenarios. Each one can happen either intentionally or organically, and there are multiple paths to get to the same place. However, understanding why you want to lead, and knowing whether you have the right qualities to be a great leader are completely independent of one another. Yes, they can be factored into the process of becoming a leader, but the most challenging factor will be to face understanding why you want to lead others.
Not all leaders should in fact be in the role they are, and I guarantee you have seen ones who shouldn’t be. I also guarantee you have seen people who should be in a leadership role, and who perhaps have not either been given the opportunity to experience this path yet, or have not realized this is a destination and journey they should be preparing for. In any of these scenarios is where someone who is, or who has been a leader can step in, and help to guide the future leader.
So, are there prescriptive actions a current or former leader can do to help a prospective leader? Yes, there are, and below are some suggestions to consider applying to identify, support and develop future and emerging leaders.
- Have a conversation with the person you have identified as a potential leader to let them know you see qualities in them that would support them to head in that direction.
- Invite someone you have identified as a potential leader to “shadow you”, and to provide them with opportunities to see your leadership style in action. This isn’t a one-time action, so consider how to integrate the “shadowing” process to be as natural as possible.
- Introduce and include your future leader into your network. There are likely other leaders you know that they can benefit from talking and interacting with.
- Be generous with your time investment with the person or individuals you have identified to cultivate into becoming leaders. This will be one of the best ROI’s (return on investment) you have encountered if you are fully supportive of developing and giving another person an opportunity to develop into a leader.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable, and be sure to share the good, bad and the ugly stories of experiences you have had, and which have all contributed to your leadership development. In general, it’s the “ugly” stories that you learned the most from.
- Help the person to find their natural leadership style, as it may in fact be quite different from yours. If you know another leader who has a similar style to theirs, be sure to connect them.
- Focus on identifying the leadership characteristics of the future leader(s) talents which are unique and can be further developed to help them to excel (e.g., communication, empathy, intellect, vulnerability, genuineness, strategic).
Lastly, please be patient with the future leader(s) you have identified, and remember how long it took for you to become an effective leader, and someone that others wanted to follow.
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