What defines a leader? In its simplest form “leader” is the title given to an individual who has the capacity to motivate and move a group of people in their direction.
Unlike popular belief, leaders are not confined to corporate boards or Political parties but are all around us in the wider community. We all come across leaders throughout our daily lives, some we see live in action and others we hear about; as is the case with most human capabilities there is also a spectrum of leaders, from the capable leaders to the exceptional, some make us switch on, whereas others make us want to switch off.
I am sure, like me, many of you have also wondered what are the attributes that make a successful and exceptional leader? What do I need to do, to be like them?
I have done a bit of reading on this topic as well as reflected on my own interactions with leaders I admire, and I must admit, it is not so simple, and it really isn’t about being like them.
Leaders are not necessarily born as leaders, rather they have an innate ability to bond with, manage and lead a group of people. Leaders are also not confined to traditional job titles; a leader is a person who people want to follow and support. If these are not skills that come naturally to you, it is possible to develop the skills just as effectively.
A leader is a person who people want to follow and support
There are a lot of opinions regarding the skills and attributes of a leader, of which there are some common threads that I have tried to capture below.
Leadership is not:
- Management — Leadership is about having vision, setting direction, aligning, and motivating a team and organisation. Whereas, management is about delivering the vision and reaching the goal, having planned, and coordinated the resources, navigated the challenges and delivering on budgets set.
- About being perfect — Leaders are human and we all have some weakness. Sharing some weakness can make leaders appear more human, relatable and approachable and therefore more effective.
Exceptional Leaders should:
- Keep in touch — Whilst differentiating yourself as a leader, remember not to lose touch with your people, be aware of what is not being said and act on it
- Be hardy and persevere — Leaders must be hardy and able to persevere and remain hopeful in the face of the toughest of situations. Despite the outcome, leaders who live through adversity will always learn and grow through them.
- Know your limits and take responsibility — It is not important to know everything, but it is important for leaders to know what they do not know and be comfortable enough to bring in experts to help advise and guide them in their decision making, whilst taking full responsibility for the decisions made.
- Focus on the goal — leaders should not focus on the interests of individuals (including stakeholders), but that of the organisation and the end goal. Organisations grow when the people within it grow, whereas the reverse is not true if not focused on the organisation and end goal. Leaders should understand their people but be emphatically tough giving them what they need to achieve their best and not just what they want. Thus, by focusing on the organisation, leaders will grow the organisation, the people and achieve stakeholder goals, it is a win-win situation for all.
The more I read on the topic of leadership, the more I find that it resonates with my own experiences, and my own leadership development journey, which is by no means complete. Below are some anecdotes from my own experience which I am hoping will help to bring some of the advice above to life and help others navigate the journey better.
I started my journey over 2 decades ago, when I accepted a position on a fast-track graduate management program, in the finance sector. It was my first role out of Uni, and I was happy with just being employed, I did not give much thought to what it was I could achieve in the long run, I just focused on doing well in my role, proving that I was capable, but leadership was never a consideration.
I was great at developing and motivating my team and smashing targets.
Over the course of 5 years, I found that I was great at developing and motivating my team and smashing targets. My hard work was rewarded with dinners with the leadership, promotions, being on crutches for 9 weeks gave me the opportunity to move into marketing and finally I delivered the POC for a new department.
By this point I had got a taste of the world of marketing and decided to move industries into digital advertising.
I continued to work hard and focus on delivering the task in hand, with little focus on self-development
I had always been a hardworking diligent student and later employee, which had served me well thus far. And so, I continued to work hard and focus on delivering the task in hand, with little focus on self-development, beyond what I needed to do the job.
For some time, this served me well as I was “achieving the company goals” and being rewarded with promotions in both position and salary.
At some point in this journey, I found myself in a leadership role, however, as is the case for many, it was not immediately obvious to me as to what was expected of me in that transition from management into leadership. There was no training offered on how to be an effective leader, or even the basics of what areas should I focus on. I was left to figure it out for myself, and I was using the company targets as my mark-sheet.
It was not until I started to feel some negative undercurrents, that I realised that something was not right.
Lucky for me, I had some awareness of my situation and being a highly motivated individual, I got to work on trying to figure out what was happening. I got myself a coach and we decided that the only way to find out what the real problem was, was to conduct an anonymous peer review. We sent it out to the leadership, peers and other team members I had worked with, about 30 people. The feedback helped pinpoint the challenges and together we figured out how to resolve the situation. This worked to improve my working relationships, but I was still somewhat operating at the manager level and not yet as a true leader.
Then came the next hurdle — I had hit the ceiling, or rock bottom, as I sometimes describe it. I realised that being an “achiever” was not serving me well in my professional career, and it also was not serving me well in my personal life. Something needed to change!
I gave myself the space to reflect and understand the situation I was finding myself in
I gave myself the space to reflect and understand the situation I was finding myself in. With the support of my coach, I realised what was actually going on. I cared for the businesses I worked for and wanted to do well for those that had put their faith in me. As a result, I had been focused on pleasing others and believed that this was what was needed for my own growth; that clearly was not the case.
I spent time figuring out what I really valued and enjoyed, what my goals were and what it was that mattered most. All the while thinking about how to find the balance between delivering against the organisational goals as well as my own.
I spent time figuring out what I really valued and enjoyed, what my goals were and what it was that mattered most.
I started to understand the events that had taken place, which I had allowed to shape my thinking, the decisions I made and the reasons behind them, and the resulting action or reaction to those decisions, which got me to where I was.
I had always been good with people and having studied speech sciences I had learned to communicate effectively at all levels, in addition I was confident and a problem solver by nature, which made me a “killer salesperson” (I can say this now, there was a time when self-praise was very difficult for me).
there was a time when self-praise was very difficult for me
Being a ‘third culture kid” I had led a “double life” through most of my teens and early university years and found that I was still hiding a lot of myself. The difference is that I used to hide my external self from my parents to give the illusion that I was their good little girl abiding by the Bengali culture. Whereas now, I was doing it to simply fit in to a world that I had grown up in. This was not only exhausting but meant that I was not able to be authentic, something needed to change, and it was me! But I didn’t change who I was, I found the courage to be my whole self. By merging my two lives, I was able to be my authentic self, which was not only liberating, but enabled me to build more authentic relationships with my team.
By merging my two lives, I was able to be my authentic self, which was not only liberating, but enabled me to build more authentic relationships with my team.
I also gained clarity with regards to where my strengths lie and where I need support, and understood that there is no such thing as a “complete leader.” I am now no longer afraid of holding my hand up and admitting when I am out of my depth and bringing in experts to “save the day” and still be the leader that I am.
What have I learnt from this? That leadership is a journey, and your accomplishments are very much linked to your lived experiences and ability to grow from them.
That organisations are not run by one person, but by the entire body of people within it and therefore leaders should be able to differentiate themselves without alienating their people, to be able to inspire and motivate the entire organisation to deliver the goals.
With the above in mind, leaders need to have high emotional intelligence and therefore be self- aware as well as be able to self-regulate, be motivated and be able to motivate others as well as be empathic and socially skilled to understand the make-up of your people and how to move them in the same direction.
And finally, but by no means the least, although inevitably we are inspired by those we have seen before us, we should not try to emulate them. Instead, we should be authentic leaders, demonstrating a passion for our purpose, practice our values consistently and lead with our hearts as well as our heads, build lasting meaningful relationships that keep us grounded and be self-disciplined to deliver results. Authentic leaders continue to grow holistically nurturing and growing both themselves and their teams beside them.
Today I am comfortable talking about my experiences that might be helpful to others and am highly dedicated to continuously growing myself and passionate about growing the people and organisations I work with.
Supriya Dev-Purkaystha — Founder | Connect Growth