Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook had Mark Zuckerberg decided to stay a programmer. At a certain point, anyone with talent and a great idea needs to stop executing and start leading others. In fact, if you want to grow by virtually any measure–be it in your life or your career–you’ll need to step up as a leader at some point. You might not know when that moment will be, but that’s all the more reason to start developing your leadership qualities now. And if you’re already a leader who wants to move higher, you should never stop improving those skills.
One of the biggest reasons people fail to make those next steps, though, is because they’re only good at the job they already do. Which is good—you should master the skills that are required to succeed in your role. On the other hand, exceptional baristas don’t necessarily make exceptional coffee shop managers. And the same is true in the startup and corporate worlds as well. With that in mind, here are the six habits that the most successful aspiring leaders practice in order to lay the groundwork for their further growth.
We often say more than we need to. The more you talk, the fewer people pay attention to what you have to say. In a recent Microsoft study, researchers found that most people lose their concentration after just eight seconds. So keep your communication short and clear no matter what the context might be. The more spare you are with your words, the more important what you do say will become.
It’s challenging to make a point concisely, so a great place to practice is email. Instead of leading off with chitchat, jump right into the reason you’re writing. Reread your emails before you send them and delete every single redundant word or sentence. Once you master brevity in email, try applying it to conversations and meetings. You may begin noticing that you’re thinking more clearly as well. It takes practice, but it’s a great way to sharpen your sense of what matters most and differentiate yourself from the pack.
Knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is only potential power. You need to put your knowledge into practice if you want to see the results of what you’ve learned. What teachers and librarians have been telling us since childhood is easy to forget, but it’s true: You have to read–every day–and read meaningfully. A study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American adult reads for just 19 minutes a day. Set a goal of 30 minutes a day, and you’re already reading more than most.
It goes virtually without saying that reading helps keep you alert and focused on a single narrative or train of thought for a sustained period of time–an increasing rarity in our media-saturated world. Reading will also give you stories and concepts to share with business partners, colleagues, friends, or family. And storytelling is one of the most effective methods to communicate and build credibility. Keep your knowledge of your craft up to date, and apply the things you learn.
When you try to move up the ladder, you’ll invariably confront politics and other obstacles. Whatever you do, don’t be deceitful. New managers and other aspiring leaders can fall victim to less ethical veterans while they’re just starting out, under the false impression that there’s a certain unspoken game they need to play in order to succeed. This idea is wrong for two reasons. First, when you play by the rules of other, more experienced players, you will lose. Second, and more important, you’re more liable to make unethical decisions and poor judgment calls. Being a leader isn’t about power–it’s about change, improvement, and growth.
People change only when they decide to. Many leaders think that they should set the direction and that everyone will follow naturally. But it almost never works out that way. As a leader, you should never force anyone to get on the same page as you simply because that’s what you want. Leadership is about influence and collaboration. Instead, relax and open up to other people’s points of view. As a leader, you should provide a framework so others can flourish and multiple perspectives can influence whatever you and those you lead are trying to achieve together. At Apple, Steve Jobs gave full creative freedom to chief design officer Jony Ive, and he didn’t question Ive’s decisions. Jobs knew how ineffective leaders work, having personally experienced John Sculley’s more overbearing style during Sculley’s tenure as CEO. Never try to force your will on people. It’s a waste of energy.
Most of our thoughts are about the past or future. By stressing out about what might happen tomorrow or replaying yesterday’s mistakes in your head, you’ll curb your mind’s ability to see things for what they are right now. As Abraham Maslow said, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” Focus on the task at hand, no matter how small. Whether that’s writing an email or having a conversation with a friend, give everything you do the fullest attention.
Do you ever feel unappreciated at work? Or get frustrated with a colleague, client, or partner? We all have moments when we respond emotionally. But that’s something leaders have to train themselves not to do. Learning patience and composure takes time and lots of practice to master. Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire and the most powerful man in the world in the second century BC, devoted time to that every day. He kept a journal, now know as the Meditations, where he wrote, “To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.” Next time you encounter a situation that makes you angry or emotional, practice keeping calm and remaining kind to the people involved. You’ll be able to solve the problem much more easily that way.
The strength of your leadership qualities depends on your effort, which is why it’s important to begin developing them even before you’re in a leadership position. Just remember that being a good leader isn’t a question of your DNA. All it takes is decision. And once you’ve decided you want to be a leader, you’ve already taken the first step.