Throughout the course of my life, I’ve met a lot of people I would consider leaders. Each has had their own style and ideas, but all have had that special something that makes people want to follow them. It makes me wonder, what is it that makes people want to follow a leader?
Today there seems to be something of an emphasis on ‘women in leadership’ too. I often get asked how women can become leaders. In my mind, approaching the question from this angle immediately puts you at a disadvantage. To me, a leader is defined by their actions and qualities, not their gender.
But what are those qualities?
- Be Brave
If you think of anyone you consider to be a leader, I’d bet they stand out through the courage of their convictions. In my career, the vast majority of roles I’ve had I’ve created for myself. I’ve been honest with myself regarding my strengths and my weaknesses and that can be confronting. I’ve looked for opportunities in organizations I’ve worked for, and created roles that leveraged my strengths and provided value to the organization. I was able to do that 6 different times at my last company. This isn’t always easy and takes courage to inspire those around you to allow you to push forward with your plans and bring them to fruition. At Extreme, I expanded my role and my team because I communicated my desire to take on Inside Sales in addition to Distribution. I’d always wanted to run Inside Sales at my last company and it was a professional goal of mine. I am now the Senior Director of Worldwide Inside Sales and Distribution at Extreme Networks. Be Brave, create opportunities, and ask for what you want.
A leader isn’t all about striving ahead and leading by example – you need to understand and get to know those around you. Encourage constructive feedback – up and down – and build trust so you can create open channels of communication with your team. Learn about each of your employee’s professional and personal goals. Find ways they can leverage their strengths to achieve those goals. This might even result in them finding an opportunity outside your company but it’s worth it when you help a team member achieve their professional and personal goals. Our top Inside Sales Rep wanted to move into outside sales at Extreme. At the time, we had no open positions but one of our trusted Distribution partners did. We worked in partnership with the leadership at the Distributor to create a role that not only moved this rep’s career forward but provided Extreme with a dedicated sales leader inside the Distributor. It was a win for the individual, for the Distribution partner, and for Extreme.
- Get Creative
Inspiring those around you is vital for any leader. That can be through showing conviction, as I mentioned before but it isn’t the only way. In my experience, being challenged brings out the best in in a team. Having to find new and creative ways to solve problems and meet targets is one of the most fulfilling aspects of working day-to-day. Understand that no problem can be solved by you alone. Ask your team members, how they would solve the problem. Ask them what they would do if they were you. You will be amazed at the powerful perspectives that come by asking. People are inspired by leaders who do that and provide an environment where their input and perspectives are valued.
Create your community
At the risk of getting philosophical, what is a leader without followers? I think this is the key distinction between what makes a manager into a leader. A manager, by definition of their job role, is responsible for a team that is obliged to follow their direction. A leader is someone who people choose to follow, irrespective of what their title is. This stems from creating your own community, one created by being brave, showing creativity and empathising with your team.
No leader is bulletproof but those with a team that is willing follow are the ones who will achieve their goals, even in the face of adversity. No one remembers times that were easy, but everyone remembers the low points. How leaders respond to difficult situations is what separates the good from the bad.
Being a leader takes a lot of practice. Over 20 years in the business and I am still learning every day. But that’s one of the beauties of leadership—the opportunities are limitless.