What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘leader’? Do you think about political leaders, organisational leaders, religious leaders etc? Do you think about yourself? If you could spend an hour with any leader of your choice, who would you choose and why? In this article, Amara discusses why improving your leadership capacity is essential for achieving career success.

1. But I am not a leader or am I? – When I discuss leadership during academic and career development workshops that I facilitate, this point usually comes up in the first few minutes. ‘I’m just a first year student. I don’t know anything about anything really, why are you talking to me about leadership?’ or ‘My job role is at the bottom of the organisational chart. I have no supervisory responsibilities. Why do I need to learn about leadership?’ Regardless of ‘rank or file’, we ALL need to learn about leadership. Developing leadership skills means working on our people skills – increasing our capacity and competence in motivating ourselves as well as others towards a common goal. As you aspire to develop your career and be given more responsibility, expanding your leadership potential is an essential in your toolkit. The ability to work well with others is always an essential requirement in a job specification. Terms used differ – ‘team work’, ‘managerial’, ‘supervisory’ – but at the core is the question ‘Will you be able to get along with the other members of the team, motivate them if necessary to ensure the organisation’s mission is met?’

We all have the potential to lead but many of us do not develop the competence or capacity to do so!

2.Focus on building relationships and not just your position – Viewing leadership as only occupying a position of authority – usually over a large group of people – is limited. It is true that about 99.5% of us will never attain being the top dog of any organisation we belong to. At any given time, there is only going to be one CEO, one Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one POTUS! It is a myth though that because you are not ‘the’ leader, you are not ‘a’ leader. While working in the voluntary sector, I learnt the importance of building relationships with team members and gaining influence naturally. Everyone influences someone! Volunteer organisations are a good place to develop leadership skills because it is a place where your team follows your lead because they want to and not because they have to! I have seen myself people fall into the ‘positional leader trap.’ We’ve all had someone like this on our team – the person who has to wield their title to get things done. If you always have to remind people you are in charge, you really aren’t. Think about a role you have been in where you were at your most productive, where you did unpaid overtime and always went the extra mile. How was your relationship with your boss or leader? When we learn to treat people with dignity and respect, we are not only developing our leadership skills, we are also increasing productivity for our organisation.

3. Authority = Responsibility – At the end of a meeting I had organised with another colleague, an attendee walked up to me and told me how great it must be to be so ‘powerful’ within my group. I was a bit taken aback by her statement and upon further discussion, I realised that where she equated leadership with authority, my perspective was from the point of responsibility. Good leaders recognise both their authority and responsibility. Leaders need to get things done and are usually under more pressure than the rest of the team realises. Leaders do have authority but this is because they have a big dossier of things and people they are responsible for. A first year undergraduate student may not see leadership opportunities but what happens when that student takes up the opportunity to become the student representative of their course? The student is given the responsibility for ensuring feedback from your colleagues is relayed to your Course Committee but being in this role also has some advantages. Leadership does have its perks – access, recognition, resources – but focus on your responsibilities. Keep first things first.

4. Competence and character – To succeed as a leader means learning as much as you can about leadership BEFORE you find yourself in a leadership position. Think about any great world leader, they learnt how to influence people while still in the trenches. Barack Obama spent years as an organiser on the streets of Chicago before he rose to the position of POTUS. Develop your competence in leadership from where you are right now – even if that means setting your personal and career goals and working towards achieving them. Good leaders develop competence in their attitude, prioritising, problem solving, team building, mentoring and self-discipline. Leadership is not just about what you are able to accomplish though but about who you are as a person.

I love football and my best way to relax and ‘unwind’ is by going to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United play. For the 90 minutes of the game, I cease to be an academic and I transform into the most prolific football manager in existence. I would have played ‘x’ in that position and not ‘y’. Surely, ‘A’ should be substituted for ‘B’ now. Why 4-2-3-1 Mr Van Gaal??? A wise man explained this as being an ‘arm chair’ critic. It is always easy to volunteer recommendations and advice where you have no responsibility. Leaders usually have a different view from followers and while we may not always agree with them, we should try and be as supportive as we can. Do not be the person who always complains about the boss but never proffers any solution that could help make the leader’s job easier. Everyone likes problem solvers on their team, learn to be one.

If you are in the position your leader is now, what would you expect from the people following you? Is that what you are doing now?

5. There are no perfect people so there are no perfect leaders. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with recognising the weaknesses of the people who lead you. The desire to innovate, create or find a way of doing things are leadership traits. It can also be frustrating working for someone who has not developed their leadership capacity but do not violate your position or the trust of your leader. Be a person of integrity and follow the Golden Rule.

Every aspiring professional must develop the capacity to lead. Use the early years to develop productive relationships at work and take up more responsibilities. Great leaders empower others to attain their professional development goals. Remember the words of Mark Twain – “Great people are those who make others feel that they, too, can become great.”

aa-headshotAbout our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology and Food Science, Amara is developing her career in academia – providing teaching and learning solutions in UK FE and HE Institutions as well as conducting research in Food Microbiology. Amara believes in the combined power of education, mentoring and productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers.

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