Becoming An Unexpected Leader

Great leaders aren’t always defined by their position on an org chart.

This is a post for all the potential leaders out there who don’t have a traditional leadership title or twenty years of leadership experience on their resume. Quit waiting for your number to be called. By learning to think and act like a leader, you can begin igniting change and leading from within your department or organization regardless of your role or job title. Here are four essential steps to becoming an unexpected leader today:

1. Understand and Improve Yourself

Do you know what your strengths are? We all have intrinsic abilities that make us who we are and define the roles that we excel in. Some challenges naturally ignite us and bring out our best. In his book, What’s Best Next, Matt Perman describes strengths in this way:

A strength is not just something you are good at; a strength is something that strengthens you as well. When you are working within your strengths, you are energized, not depleted. In other words, your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong. Strengths are not abstract attributes, but actual activities. You will have more clarity on your strengths the more specific you get in defining the activities that you excel at and which make you feel strong.

Once you’ve identified your strengths, develop them by adding knowledge and skills. Read a book, take a class, or find someone that you can learn from. Adding knowledge and skills to your strengths should be easy if you purposefully find opportunities to do so.

2. Understand and Value Your Teammates

In the same way that unexpected leaders are aware of their own strengths, they need to be aware of the strengths of their teammates. Discovering the strengths of the people you work with isn’t hard if you have a little emotional intelligence and look for a few key factors. What are the activities that your teammates are most excited about? Always volunteer for? Bring up in water cooler conversation? If none come to mind, simply ask them what they believe their personal strengths are.

Once you understand your teammates’ strengths and see where they best contribute to the team, you can begin to dream big for their success. Anyone can be passionate about their own success, but unexpected leaders always show their stripes by dreaming big for the good of others. Find opportunities to verbally encourage and affirm the contributions they make to your team. Genuinely build them up in conversation with your boss or their’s. Nothing outlandish is needed, just make sure they know that you understand and appreciate the contribution they make to your team.

3. Be Ambitious for Your Institution

Jim Collins describes this as an essential attribute of Level 5 leaders, so it makes sense that it is one of the four ways you can learn to think and act like an unexpected leader. Contrary to what you may imagine, being ambitious for your institution isn’t about taking a leadership retreat and coming back with lots of big ideas for change. It’s about discipline. Everyone has tasks and responsibilities that are essential to the day-to-day health and success of their organization. Unexpected leaders exercise discipline and excel in their current responsibilities before expecting anyone to entrust them with bigger challenges down the road.

Unexpected leaders always do the best work with the best motives, no matter how small or meaningless their role may seem to others. But what if your current responsibilities don’t align with your strengths or motivate you to get out of bed in the morning? Let me tell you the secret to finding joy and meaning in any job: pursue excellence for the love of others. It’s a simple concept that can completely change the way you think about every task. Say, for example, that you are a janitor and your responsibilities include taking out the trash. Others may think that your job is unimportant and assume that anyone can empty a trash can. However, as an unexpected leader, you take the few extra moments each day to make sure that the new bag is secure to the can so that your co-workers won’t have to stop and reattach the bag whenever it would otherwise come loose throughout the day. The extra time and attention you took up front resulted in saved time and frustration for everyone who followed. It’s a small example, but unexpected leaders learn to pursue excellence in their work for the good of others and find that it brings a surreal amount of meaning and value to even their most mundane responsibilities.

4. Act Like A Leader

Once you’ve learned to think like a leader (see 1–3 above) you will be in the right frame of mind to act like a leader. Here are a few key steps to put your leadership mentality into action:

  • Work from your identity, not for it. This is the key to all fearless leadership.
  • Embody personal humility and professional will. (See Good to Great for more on this important characteristic)
  • Ask great questions to draw out the opinions of others.
  • Invite feedback and collaboration from your teammates.
  • Advocate for your desired outcome while inviting others to participate in defining the process for achieving that outcome.
  • Know when to stand alone and when to defer to others.
  • Build a team behind you by pouring into others and finding opportunities to replace yourself.
  • Look out the window to ascribe praise when things work and into the mirror to take responsibility when they don’t. (Another Level 5 attribute)
  • Don’t wait; act like a leader TODAY!

Becoming an unexpected leader is attainable for anyone because it doesn’t require permission or a position. By learning to think and act like a leader, you can be an agent for positive change regardless of your current role or job title.

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