Many people who find themselves in a leadership role for the first time take a little while to get settled. Learning how to manage a team and give directives is no easy art. While they’re figuring that out, some new managers fall back on preconceived notions about what leaders look like and how they behave.
But it’s a mistake to get caught up in the image. As a leader, you’ve got to understand your strengths and play to them. After all, it’s your skills and talents that got you into your new position in the first place, and they’re the same things that will help you stay at the top of your game. Here are some things to consider as you begin shaping your leadership style—which you may soon find is easier than you’d expected.
When you think about the ideal leader, what do you picture? Does your leader dress, look, and act a certain way? Does he or she have an impressive title or business background? We all have our own ideas about what a “real” leader is, and many of us don’t identify with them personally. In those cases, it can be tempting to cultivate a leader’s persona instead of becoming one in substance.
But being a leader has nothing to do with the image. Leadership is about clarity of purpose and commitment to your team and yourself. Make sure you ground your leadership style in self-awareness and action—rather than anything superficial. By knowing (and owning) who you are, you can become a great leader.
There are many reasons why we might feel like we can’t really be ourselves once we’re in leadership roles:
- We don’t measure up to our ideas about leaders.
- There are situations we aren’t sure how to handle.
- We have insecurities or flaws that we want to hide.
- There are skills that we still need to develop.
- We’re uncomfortable with honest self-criticism.
- We suffer from “impostor syndrome” and don’t feel like we’re qualified for the role.
It’s normal for people in positions of responsibility to feel stretched by their roles once in a while, especially at first. But operating under the assumption that you have to be someone else in order to be effective can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider this:
- When you exude insecurity, it affects how people view and interact with you. Others are less likely to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.
- People understand when you’re being genuine with them and when you aren’t. Putting on a façade doesn’t instill trust and confidence.
- When you avoid situations you’re uncomfortable with, you’re not doing your job.
- If you aren’t self-aware enough, new challenges can easily throw you off balance.
- The energy you spend dealing with fear and insecurity is energy you’re not spending on getting work done.
Trying to run an organization or manage a team while you’re hung up on your shortcomings won’t get you nearly as far as leading with authenticity and self-confidence. Here are some places to start:
- Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Look hard, listen to feedback, and be honest with yourself. If you’re not sure where to begin, solicit advice from friends, colleagues, or your own management.
- If you know you’re weak in a particular domain, you have two options. You can either develop those skills yourself or find coverage elsewhere on the team. Being comfortable delegating to, and collaborating with, those who are more expert than you isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a sign of leadership.
- Understand (and embrace) your peculiarities. Most of us have idiosyncrasies that fall outside the norm. Welcome to the human race! Get comfortable with it.
- Use your self-awareness and acceptance as a strength. Steve Jobs, an undisputed industry leader, was known for his prickly personality. But he didn’t hide who he was. Would he have had the same impact had he pretended to be someone else?
The bottom line is just to be authentic. Most people are pretty good at detecting phoniness around them—all the more so when it comes to those in charge. Own your quirks, change what you want, but stay true to yourself. You’ll earn trust that way and will be able to lead on a solid foundation of genuineness.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a project manager for a team of six or an executive leading an organization of 6,000. Real leaders can exist at every level in an organization. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your background is, or what title is printed on your business card. What matters is your ability to see what needs doing and get it done.
And in that sense, leadership isn’t so much about you as it is about accomplishing those goals as a team. When you’re fully engaged with the people and issues you’re all there to address—rather than spending time and energy on crafting an image—you’re leading from a position of strength.
Jennine Heller combines years of business and management experience with her training as a professional performance coach to help leaders achieve the success they are capable of. You can find Jennine at Booster Stage Leadership Coaching and connect with her on Twitter @boosterstage.