My first job after college was as a help desk service representative in an insurance company. I knew it wasn't a position I wanted to be in long term, but it was a way to get my foot in the door. After working in that position a few months, I realized I wanted to work toward a leadership role. It seemed so glamorous--having the authority to make decisions, being in charge of a department, and making more money. Setting my sights on leadership seemed like the next best step.
As I moved up the leadership ranks in my career, I realized leadership was very different from my first impression. It wasn't about prestige, power, money or authority. It was about service, humility, relationships and influence. In fact, being a leader wasn't as exciting and glamorous as I had expected. It came with a lot of responsibility, a lot of headaches, and some choices that weren't always easy to make. There were many moments of impact and fulfillment, but there were also times of high demands and high stress.
I had the blessing of having a few excellent leaders in my career who modeled great leadership through coaching, developing and mentoring. I also had several bosses who taught me what not to do. These leaders were focused on themselves—how much power and control they had and how to expand their turf. Although working for the latter wasn't inspiring or easy, I learned from these experiences. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader, and having the desire to lead and the skills to lead are two different things. Having the desire to be a leader is important, but desire must be met with modern and influential leadership skills.
Leadership isn't about working our way up the corporate ladder to one day finally arrive and say, "Wow, I've made it." True leadership is a journey, not a destination. Leadership is a state of being, not a role one fills while at work. The work toward leadership isn't just important for when we prepare for a leadership role. In fact, once "appointed" to a leadership role, the real work has just begun.
Effective leaders strive for constant improvement to better themselves every day. They strive to impact those around them. They look outside themselves and seek a bigger impact in their organization and perhaps even in the world. Leadership is not just about learning a few new tools or strategies; it's learning a new way of being.
True leadership is about service; it's serving your employees by developing them and helping them reach their highest potential and personal goals. It's serving the organization by contributing your best to achieve the goals. It's serving the membership by having their best interest in mind and helping them achieve their financial dreams.
I believe we have a leadership crisis in this world. We have many leaders who aspire for the title and for the prestige and power. And some who strive for a leadership role because they see it as the next step in their career. But few people view leadership as an opportunity for impact. Few people have the competencies and skills necessary for influential leadership.
How do you know you are on the right path?
In my work with executives and managers, I have found several characteristics that influential leaders possess:
- A dedication to continuous learning: Influential leaders strive to improve every day. They read books, listen to audios, read articles, and seek to gain more information about their industry, as well as how to become a better leader and person. They are very self aware; they understand their strengths and weaknesses, and are not afraid to hire others to fill the gaps. They are always in a state of learning and encourage their employees to grow and develop.
- A focus on others: Influential leaders aren't in leadership for themselves; they are there to make an impact on others. They provide clarity, direction, appreciation, and support to their employees. They make their employees a priority and invest time and effort into helping each individual reach their peak performance and potential. They are not afraid to provide constructive feedback, for they know it's about facilitating improvement and is in service to the greater good.
- Emotional intelligence: Influential leaders realize great leadership isn't just about driving the agenda and getting results. They understand the importance of people, and they are approachable, compassionate, supportive, and great listeners. They understand that employees are people who have desires, goals and fears.
- Create a stable environment: Even in the midst of organizational change and uncertainty, influential leaders foster an environment of stability. They do this by being dependable, honest, trustworthy and respectful. They follow through on their word and possess a high level of integrity. They don't have all the answers, and they are not afraid to admit mistakes. They model behaviors that reinforce integrity and trust.
Certainly effective leaders need to possess some talent, confidence, and strategic ability. But what separates the mediocre leaders from the exceptional leaders are the qualities that go beyond technical and strategic mastery. They are skills that cultivate an environment of engagement, trust, loyalty and growth.
The world needs more of these leaders. We need the next generation of leaders to bring change to our organizations and cultivate true and influential leadership. You have the opportunity to impact the business world more than you may think.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.