Do you consider yourself to be a leader? Your answer is important whether you’re just starting in your career or have many years of experience. If your answer is “No, I’m not ready,” or “I don’t need a title,” you may be doing yourself and others around you a disservice.
Early in my career I landed a job as the right-hand advisor to a chief justice who was a top leader of judges, members of the Bar, and the broader community. Next to him, I saw myself as a get-things-done worker bee, there to support the leader. Outside of my paid work, I had started Suit Yourself, a charitable organization that helps women in difficult circumstances by providing them with free work attire — and the encouragement they needed to seek and obtain employment. Although I had put my heart and soul into developing the charity, I didn’t see myself as a leader there either. I worried that if I acted like a leader I might be viewed as power-hungry, greedy, or over-stepping the boundaries of my job.
I thought I was moving quietly and cautiously forward — until a friend who was working with me at the charity said, “I don’t know if you realize the impact you’re having and just how much you’re helping.” I quickly responded, “It’s really not a big deal. I’m just doing what needs to be done.”
After she left, though, her words floated in my head and sparked something inside me. I began to wonder how downplaying my efforts and actions was impacting my ability to grow the charity. Was helping people who were going through hard times really “not a big deal”? I knew that helping was actually a very big deal and that the organization needed leaders who would whole-heartedly support its growth and development.
My friend’s holding that invisible mirror up for me that day showed me what she saw in me — and helped me see myself differently. I realized that I was a lot stronger than I thought and that I could do even better; if I stopped being a discreet and cautious “closet leader” and showed up as a committed, courageous and compassionate leader, I could help even more people through my work and community service. I was ready to step up and be a leader without any expectation of title or status.
Once I changed my perspective on the value of showing up as a leader, things started to get better. At the charity, I was more open about sharing my story of why I started the charity and asking for help. New volunteers, donors, and supporters emerged. Most importantly, the number of people we were able to help grew steadily. At work, I launched new initiatives that helped others in their work and made me feel fulfilled and rewarded.
From this transformative experience, I took away two key learnings that I still believe to be true.
Leaders Are Everywhere
Leaders come from diverse backgrounds and experience levels; they might be found in any chair at any level of their organizations. They don’t have superhuman powers, but they are willing to show up as their unique, authentic best selves, to stand up for what they believe is right, and to listen so that they learn and understand others’ perspectives. The best leaders never forget their (often humble) beginnings and are open and honest about their struggles and successes.
Leaders Need Commitment and Courage
Leadership isn’t about building your resume or increasing profits, although these can result from it. Being a leader is also not easy; it requires commitment and courage. As professor, researcher, and author Dr. Brené Brown writes on her website (https://daretolead.brenebrown.com/):
Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders.
When someone notices how capable and strong you are, seek to understand the potential they see in you. If you doubt your leadership capacity, get curious about and explore what might be holding you back from believing that you are a leader and what risks you take when you downplay your contributions. As part of that exploration, you might consider these questions.
- What does a leader look and sound like to you?
- How might that viewpoint help or hinder you in seeing yourself as a leader?
- What is the contribution, impact, or difference that you want to make every day in your work, your community, or beyond?
- How could seeing yourself — and acting — as a leader help you meet your goals?
- Who or what could benefit from your leadership?
- How could you start or continue your leadership journey?
- Who could you connect with for inspiration or to learn more about being a leader?
If you’re not seeing a leader in the mirror, look again! You might be surprised what you see if you look a little closer.