“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less,” wrote John Maxwell. When most people think of leadership, they think of someone running a major organization or spearheading a social movement. When they hear the word leader, they think of people in the spotlight.
We need to get rid of this definition. It’s wrong. It perpetuates the myth that leadership is reserved for a select few.
If leadership is influence, then everyone has the opportunity to lead. Maybe you don’t (yet) run a Fortune 500 company. But you do have the opportunity to influence others every day of your life.
No one is ever born a leader. Winston Churchill wasn’t born making great speeches and courageous decisions. He developed those skills over a lifetime of everyday actions.
Everyone has this opportunity. It’s the actions that we take every day, out of the spotlight, that determine how we’ll respond when those big moments do come up.
When you see a great leader, you’re seeing the product of thousands of minor decisions. It’s those everyday moments and decisions, compounded through consistency, which make a great leader.
And the world needs more leaders. We need more people looking to positively influence others. We all have this opportunity. It starts with the decisions we make each day.
Challenge What Needs to be Challenged
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” — John Kenneth Gilbraith
Great leaders are those that motivate change. They speak up when they see something unjust they view to be unjust and create a sense of urgency for change. They don’t simply tolerate change, they become change agents.
Be on constant guard against rationalization. The moment that you begin to rationalize behaviors you know aren’t right, you’ve committed to a path of stagnation. When you see something that doesn’t look right, ask a question. Challenge it. Don’t normalize the unacceptable.
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” — Bill Gates
The mark of a great leader is someone who can bring out greatness in others. They know that to lead well, they need to help others reach their potential. That means being on their side, giving them the opportunity to succeed, and providing the support to help them do it.
Look for opportunities where you can encourage others each day. Put your support behind someone who’s trying to make a positive change. When you believe in others, they’ll begin to believe in themselves.
Invest in Relationships
“A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Great leaders are initiators. They take the first step and put in the effort to build relationships. They know that the only way they’ll be able to accomplish great things is through a great network of relationships.
Make relationships a priority in your life. Reserve a few minutes each day to reach out to a friend or colleague and see how they’re doing. Initiate contact instead of waiting for others to take the first step. Most importantly, take a genuine interest in others. If people connect with you, they’re more likely to follow you.
Make Intentional Decisions
“We are our choices.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Leaders live by design, not by default. Whether it’s their career, health, finances, relationships, or any other area, leaders don’t fall victim to routine. They know that at the end of the day, the only thing that defines us is our choices.
As you go through each day, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it because you’re making an intentional choice, or because you’re drifting along through routine? Make sure that the choices you make each day are not only in your best interest, but also in the best interest of other people in your life.
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” — John F. Kennedy
Great leaders make learning a priority. They know that the only way to keep moving forward is by recognizing their own limitations and taking steps to improve. They stay open-minded in the face of new knowledge and don’t hesitate to change their mind when presented with new evidence.
Schedule some time on your calendar for self-improvement. Read a book, research new technologies, or investigate a new market opportunity. Listen to a podcast, watch some TED talks, or take an online course. There’s nearly an unlimited amount of opportunities to learn available to us. We just need to make it a priority.
“You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Great leaders know that what gets them to the top isn’t what keeps them there. While many people are willing to sacrifice early in their careers in order to make progress, leaders know that sacrifice is a continual process, not a one-time event.
Take a moment and make two lists: (1) things that you’re willing to sacrifice for success, and (2) things that you’re not willing to sacrifice. Recognize that each new opportunity must bring a sacrifice from one of those lists.
Give Solutions, Not Problems.
“Leaders think and talk about the solution. Followers think and talk about the problem.” — Brian Tracy
Great leaders solve problems. They inspire confidence in people through their capacity to solve problems and their commitment to helping others. The day that either of these areas stops being true, they’re lost their ability to lead that group.
When you catch yourself complaining about a problem, focus on suggesting a solution. You don’t need to have all the answers, responding with a “what if we tried this,” is often the first step towards a major breakthrough. People don’t always need a sure-fix. They just need a path forward.
“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” — Maimonides
Great leaders are decisive. They balance the need for action with the need for a rational decision. They invest the time to understand a situation and consider their options, and then take decisive action and move forward with commitment.
Remember that it’s often the quality of your execution that determines success. If you’re procrastinating on a decision or trying to straddle multiple options for fear of making the wrong choice, you’re limiting your ability to execute successfully. Make a choice and commit yourself to executing it well.
Communicate a Vision
“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” — Reverend Theodore Hesburgh
Great leaders connect with people emotionally. They give people a clear vision of a better future and help them see a path to reach that point. When people can clearly see both an improved future, and a realistic path towards achieving it, they’re motivated to follow.
Practice communicating your ideas clearly to others. Recognize that even when you’re communicating to a group, you need to relate to people as individuals. Learn to take the focus off yourself and communicate with people where they are, and where they want to go.
Lead by Example
“Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.” — Chinese Proverb
Great leaders know that actions speak louder than words. Before asking people for commitment, they commit themselves. Before asking others for sacrifice, they sacrifice themselves. They know that while people may listen to what they say, they’re much more likely to be convinced by what they do.
List out your top five values that you want to encourage in others. For each one, list out the actions that would encourage similar behaviors from others. Then compare those behaviors to what you did today.
“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” — Sam Walton
Great leaders recognize that anyone can criticize and tear someone down. Instead, they choose to use their voice to build others up. Even in criticism, their motivation is always improvement.
Consider how you’re using your voice. Take a moment to offer someone a word of encouragement. And if you’re providing criticism, couple it with a suggestion for improvement.
Actively Listen to Others.
“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have rather talked.” — Mark Twain
Great leaders are great listeners. They know that active listening is the best way to understand new perspectives, learn new things, and show people that they value their input. There are few better ways to make a genuine connection with others than by actively listening to them.
When you’re talking with others, put your phone away and focus on the other person. Look them in the eye, listen, and reflect on what they have to see before turning the conversation back towards yourself.
Prioritize Problem Prevention over Problem Solving
“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” — Arnold Glasow
Most companies celebrate problem-solvers over problem-preventers. Without meaning to, they encourage people to let problems manifest before taking the steps to solve them. Great leaders actively manage risk to prevent problems. When everyone else is recovering from an emergency, they’re able to turn it into an opportunity.
Practice taking a proactive approach to risk. Develop the habit of considering how things could go wrong and put mitigation strategies into place. The more you can think in terms of probabilities and potential consequences, the less problems you’ll end up having.
Hold Yourself to the Highest Standard
“Whatever you are, be a good one.” — Abraham Lincoln
Great leaders are utterly contemptuous of defeat. They don’t settle. They use these disappointments to elevate their performance to the next level and push their team towards victory. Once followers stop believing in a leader’s capability to succeed, there’s no longer a reason to follow.
Maintain high standards in whatever you do. Today’s exception becomes tomorrow’s baseline. As your standards go, so will your performance. And there’s no better way to hold others accountable to the highest expectations than by holding yourself to an even higher one.
“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” — Tony Blair
Leaders know that in order to make an impact in one big area, they’ll need to turn down many other opportunities. They maintain a narrow focus through clear priorities and are ruthless in cutting distractions out of their life.
How you choose to focus your time determines where you’ll have an impact. Decide on the areas that will lead to the biggest return on your investment. If you’re not prioritizing your time and attention into these areas, start cutting out the distractions that are keeping you from them.
Learn from Failures
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles
Great leaders try new things. They take on big challenges. And as a result, they tend to fail often. The difference between leaders and followers is that leaders don’t give up in the face of these setbacks. They learn. They move forward. They fail better next time. Until eventually they achieve that success.
Look for opportunities to experiment with something new and accept failure as a price of entry. Dissect the failures to understand root cause. Try again. Fail better next time.
Find Ways to Add Value to Others
“Leadership is simple: add value to people everyday.” — Mike Krzyzewski
The measure of a great leader isn’t how much we help ourselves, but how much we help others. Leaders who help others do so by making it a priority. They take the focus off of themselves, step out of their comfort zone, and seek out ways to add value to the lives of others.
Every day, we have an unlimited amount of opportunities to help someone else. We fail to notice them because we’re too focused on ourselves. Focus on finding one thing that you can do for someone else without a thought of getting something in return. You have value to add. And there are few things more rewarding than helping others.
Step Up and Lead
“A leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone.” — Henry Kissinger
Great leaders lead. There’s no such thing as a great leader who doesn’t step up and lead when the time comes.
Look for a cause that you care about. Become involved. And raise your hand when the opportunity comes. It’ll never be perfect, but there’s no better way to learn.