Next Level Leadership: Three Critical Behaviors of Aspiring Leaders Who Stand Out
“What are the top three things that aspiring leaders should do in order to stand out and show their readiness to take on big challenges?”
This question came from a rising leader, Belinda, whom I met at a recent luncheon for young professionals.
It’s a great question, and while there are no doubt countless things that aspiring leaders can do in order to gain credibility, respect, and influence, there are at least three critical behaviors that I regularly see in rock star aspiring leaders—that is: those who stand out to their peers, supervisors, and organizational leaders:
1. They take more risks.
When I was thinking about leaving my role at the Carnegie Foundation in order to write a book on a new model of leadership (a project that eventually morphed into the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential), I hemmed and hawed about the decision for what felt like ages:
- Could I afford to leave my full time role with no guaranteed source of income?
- Could I actually write a book and was I qualified enough to write on this topic?
- Would this be career suicide?
- What would my friends and family think (I was especially worried about looking like a high achieving person who just sort of threw it all away…)?
- What exactly would I be doing for work?
- What is the “big idea” that I wanted to put out into the world?
- Would my current colleagues hate me for leaving?
- Would the people who’d believed in me and supported my work in the past (supervisors, advisors, colleagues, people who referred me for jobs) worry that they’d made a mistake?
- Did I have what it took to be an entrepreneur?
- [Insert your own crushing fear here.]
The point is: whether it’s a personal decision or a business decision, you can never really have complete information in advance about how a situation will work out—as one of my mentors advised me: the scenarios with the highest potential rewards are almost always the most risky; the job of good leaders is to determine which risks are worth taking.
Sure, it’s important to do your research and think through your decisions, but ultimately, if you want to pursue something that’s new or different or never been done before, you have to get comfortable with giving up what feels safe, known, and comfortable—and go for the gold.
Yes, it will be hard, and yes—you may even cry and feel like an incompetent toddler who’s in way over their head from time-to-time (Though this might be specific to my situation…). Without a doubt, you will also, at one point or another, question whether you’ve made a mistake or whether you should call it quits.
Even worse (yes—it gets worse), it will definitely be terrifying at times, but that fear will fuel you to keep working your tail off (well, fear and love—but I’m not going to lie, fear will be a huge part of it).
2. They don’t worry too much about making everyone like them.
If you’re doing anything truly innovative, or that in any way challenges the status quo, at best you’ll probably be laughed at, and at worst, people will aggressively tear you down. Take it as a sign that people are actually taking your work seriously enough to challenge it.
Philanthropist and entrepreneur, Eli Broad, is frequently quoted as saying, “I’d rather be respected than liked,” and while in theory this is good advice, I’ll be the first to admit that I could do better at practicing what he’s preaching.
The problem is that I pride myself on being someone who does a pretty good job of balancing goal-directedness with valuing people, so when I do or say something that actually angers someone (even if their criticism is completely baseless), I often feel like it’s a personal failure—like if I’d really done a good job of stating my position, it wouldn’t have angered them.
This is a great way to win a popularity contest; the problem is that if you want to earn respect and be viewed as competent, you have to be able to state your ideas and opinions (along with the logic behind them) and be okay with the fact that not everyone is going to agree with you.
In fact, if you’re doing anything truly innovative, or that in any way challenges the status quo, at best you’ll probably be laughed at, and at worst, people will aggressively tear you down. Take it as a sign that people are actually taking your work seriously enough to challenge it.
In essence, while it’s all well and good to embrace your interpersonal and relationship skills as a way to influence people (something that effective leaders must be able to do), like all good competencies, influence is a balancing act, and you need to get comfortable with pissing some people off.
3. They realize that there’s no one best style of leadership.
I used to work with a woman named, Mariel, who (almost literally) kicked ass at being assertive. Her natural way of being was just like a tornado of force—outspoken, analytical, and goal-focused, she never hesitated to speak her mind—whether it was with someone she managed or the leader of our organization.
I regularly watched her take on power players twice her age, and bring them around to her way of seeing things with relative ease. Sure, she annoyed a few people from time to time, but the people who worked with her also viewed her as highly competent, reliable, and a visionary. (It probably didn’t hurt that she quickly learned to balance her strong personality with good listening skills, empathy, and self-awareness). She was an absolute all-star and everyone knew it.
On the other end of the spectrum, I once worked with a woman named Stephanie, who was the total opposite of Mariel: a natural introvert, Stephanie only spoke up in groups when she felt there was something that still needed to be said, or when she believed that a particular decision was not the best one for the organization—but when she did speak up, people shut up and listened to every word that came out of her mouth.
Instead of taking people on directly, she focused on connecting with people one-on-one and forging strong relationships. She also paid close attention to what motivated people so that she could get them to do their best work while ultimately pushing the work of the organization forward. Over time, she also learned to give honest critical feedback in a way that was constructive, and ultimately empowering to her team members.
A senior leader once remarked to me: “She has a quiet power, and in some ways, that’s the best kind of power…”[Tweet “”She has a quiet power, and in some ways, that’s the best kind of power…””]
While Mariel and Stephanie were both highly effective and well-regarded leaders in their organizations, they had totally different leadership styles—what they had in common was an authentic approach: a strong sense of self-awareness that drove them to identify how to leverage their own unique skills and strengths to successfully influence others—while regularly reflecting on what worked well in a particular situation, and how they could continuously improve their performance over time.
At the end of the day, what I’ve learned from my own experience as a leader—and from working with and observing outstanding leaders across sectors and organizations—is that rising leaders who want to stand out and demonstrate their potential to take on increasingly big challenges will benefit from taking more risks, caring just a little bit less about being liked, and being open to exploring the leadership style that works best for them.
Question: Have you ever dared to take a big risk, care less about what others think, or break away from the typical “mold” of leadership? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience. Share your answers in the comments below.
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