How To Be A Leader

How To Be A Leader

When you think of a leader, who springs to mind? The CEO of your company? John F. Kennedy? The woman who heads up your book-club? Your friend who always organise your group’s social activities? All of these people lead others in some way or another. That’s the thing: leadership comes in many different forms.

Even if the idea of growing up to be a corporate big-wig is the sort of thing which has you waking up in a cold sweat, sometimes a leadership role is one you will have to assume unexpectedly, at the last moment. You never know when you’ll be asked to step up to the plate, & for this reason, having a few core leadership skills will always serve you magnificently.

So, what are the essential elements of leadership? What skills & assets do you need in order to steer a group of people in one direction or the other?

Have a vision
If a vision is difficult for you to come up with, at the very least you need to have a set of ideals or beliefs that are important to you. When you look at great leaders from history — Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Winston Churchill — you realise that one thing they all had in common was a very strong devotion to a specific cause.

You will need to have something similar. It doesn’t matter what your vision is. It could be about constructing a Utopian society, introducing a new form of recycling, devotion to real sex education in schools, free cupcakes for everyone on Fridays or compulsory comfort tests for stiletto manufacturers. Really, it’s up to you. The only “rule” as such is that you have to believe in it. It has to be real to you. It has to be something that you think is worth fighting for.

Don’t worry if you don’t know how to make your vision come to life. The human brain is a marvellous thing, capable of solving incredibly complicated problems while we, its humble owners, sleep peacefully. You’ll get there. The first step, & it’s a critical one, is just to have a vision.

“Absolute identity with one’s cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.” — Woodrow Wilson

Be prepared to make tough decisions
Being a leader means the onus is on you. As a leader, you’re the person who has to make the difficult choices — there is no one else to shift the blame to. You’re at the top of the chain of command, so you can’t make excuses or wriggle out of responsibility, no matter how much you may want to!

Sometimes that means you have to fire or demote a friend, start saying “no” when “yes” would be much easier, or set out a new moral code. People don’t always take kindly to the person making these decisions. That can be unpleasant — no one wants to be disliked. Unfortunately, sometimes to make steps in the right direction, you have to be the bad guy.

Being a leader often means saying or doing what is unpopular — & sometimes, carving out your own path alone until you find other people who agree with you. This can sometimes seem like a heavy burden, & it can certainly be hard work, but ultimately it is what is needed to implement real change.

“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.” — Tony Blair

Set an example
Let me put this to you plainly. If you tell everyone else that they should live the life of their dreams, but in secret all you really do is sit on your couch eating potato chips, you’re not setting a good example! It’s important to be inspiring, & the best way to do that is to practice what you preach! After all, if it isn’t good enough for you, why would your intended audience bother?

You need to be a living, breathing embodiment of your ideals. The idea is to hold yourself up as a shining light, so that you can show others the way. That’s just it: it’s not enough to tell people what they should be doing, you need to actually show them, so they have someone to look to. Even your most ardent followers will fall off the wagon sometimes — & if all they have to do to get re-inspired is observe you, you’re making everyone’s lives easier.

Another reason that setting an example is important is that it will help gain you respect from your intended audience.

There are many ways that you can help generate respect for yourself, aside from making sure that you walk the walk as well as talking the talk. When you are establishing yourself as a leader, it’s important to act with integrity. You will have to decide what that means for you, because everyone, & everyone’s situations, are entirely different. Sometimes that means being transparent. Sometimes it means saying no (see above!) to someone who would like you to compromise your ideals. You will have to make your own decisions about this, but if you’re not sure, consider whether you’d want it splashed across the front page of the newspaper. Then act accordingly!

“We can’t drive our SUVs & eat as much as we want & keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times… & then just expect that other countries are going to say OK. That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen.” — Barack Obama

Understand people
Having empathy for other people & the skills to communicate with them are two extremely important assets in any kind of leadership role. After all, usually as a leader, you are speaking for people — giving a voice to people who have none, or at least, no way to get heard. In order to do that, of course you need to get to know them!

There’s a reason why politicians go on the campaign trail. You have to get out & mix & mingle with the people so that they feel like you actually care about them. After all, who are you going to feel more positively about? Some chump in an office miles away, twiddling his thumbs, or a guy you’ve spoken to, who has kissed your baby & wished you well? The pure number of photographs of politicians smooching newborn children should give you the answer!

If you feel like you’re not that great with people — if, for example, you mostly just find them pretty irritating, or you’re not so hot at making pleasant chit-chat — you might like to work on that. Your local bookstore is an excellent resource. Pick up copies of How To Win Friends & Influence People & Please Understand Me, then take them home & devour them eagerly. You will learn a lot about other people’s personal psychology through these books, & if you’re hungry for more, take a peek at this.

The better your understanding of people, the easier you will find it to grasp their motivations & desires, which in turn will make it easier to work out how to get them to do what you want! Sneaky, huh?! It will also give you a much better picture of what you’re trying to achieve. Because it’s not just you, it’s you & your army. You need to incorporate them into your vision, & if you’re not a “people person”, you may find this hard to do.

Of course, theoretical knowledge is no good without actually putting it into practice. Make an effort to translate what you’ve learned into real-world experience. You might like to journal your experiences — you’ll find this a very valuable way of charting your growth, as well as learning what works & what doesn’t!

“The best leaders are always asking, “What should we do? Where should we be headed?” It’s a great way to communicate trust. People who make great leaders — the kind of leaders who, if they leave a company, others will jump ship to follow — are those who say, “Tell me what’s on your mind. Give me whatever you’ve got.” They’re open to learning, and they’re always looking for ways to learn. They never think they know everything there is to know. And they’re right.” (Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Great Leader? Fortune.)

One of the reasons for having a strong vision — aside from the fact that it helps you steer in one direction or another — is that it will keep you going, even when times are tricky. If your vision is weak or non-existent, as soon as you hit a bump, you might just be tempted to retire to your boudoir & watch The Wizard Of Oz 23 times in a row while eating cheese out of a can (or something equally horrific).

Perseverance is an incredibly important quality for a leader. You need to have more tenacity, gumption & vim than anyone else on your team. If you give up, what do you think your supporters will do? (Yeah, you can probably guess.) You need to be prepared to keep pushing, even when the road ahead looks hard, & challenges start to appear in the distance — which will happen, make no mistake about it.

I mean, Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech didn’t go, “Let freedom ring… & if not, no biggie”! There is a reason for this!

Another great quality many leaders have is that they welcome obstacles. It is often said that leaders are made by the way they deal with problems. While obstacles can make us groan & roll our eyes, it can help to view the overcoming of said obstacle as a huge step forward. Not to mention, the success of kicking your obstacle’s ass will give you further grit, determination & excitement to boot the next one to the curb!

Honestly, though, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. That’s what makes you so brilliant, baby!

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, & struggle; the tireless exertions & passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around & give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” — Michael Jordan

Be positive
How many leaders do you know that eventually hit a wall, throw up their hands & yell for mercy? That’s right — in the words of Scribe, a New Zealand rapper, “not many, if any”.

A real leader keeps their chin up even when the outlook is a bit misty — or downright stormy. While that might sound tricky, it really comes from their own very strong beliefs that they are doing what is right, & what is necessary. Crusading for bulldog clips in a range of pastel colours is the sort of thing you could probably let slide, but working for justice, racial equality, truth, love or beauty? Pshhhaw. If it means anything to you, you’re not just going to give up on it.

This is not to say that great leaders are never defeated, because sometimes things don’t go to plan. But the point is that they get back up again & keep fighting!

“There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.” — W. Clement Stone

So, how can you practice leadership? It’s easier than you might think. All of the attributes of being a leader, as listed above, are things you can start implementing in your life, even if you are a hermit in a cave. Make an effort to be positive. Have a vision for yourself. Start to welcome challenges & congratulate yourself when you overcome them. Leader or no, all of these things will set you up for massive success.

The next thing you might like to try is volunteering yourself for small leadership roles. Put your hand up for the position of captain of your club, offer to lead a project at work, start organising social events for you & your friends, boss your boyfriend around in bed! (Blush!) Taking charge in these small ways will challenge you while simultaneously helping to build up your confidence in your own abilities.

It might seem like a long way from there to Napoleon, but the more you practice your leadership skills, the closer you’ll get. Silly hat entirely optional, of course!