Among people who report to me, a common complaint I have heard is: “I know you keep talking about demonstrating leadership, but you never appointed me a leader for any team…how do I demonstrate leadership without a designation”.
To be fair, I have spoken the same lament to my bosses in the past. In fact, I used to do that at every opportunity. All that stopped when my boss once told me: “Leadership is not a designation, it is a role. Leadership comes from what you do and not what your designation is.” That was his way of telling me to stop with the excuses already !
Does leadership come from authority ?
But if you look at it more closely, it does make sense. In most hierarchical cultures, leadership is identified with your designation. Indian society, for example, naturally identifies leadership with authority and sets the expectation that knowledge and instructions flow from the boss to the subordinate and rarely the other way round. When you grow up in such a culture, you tend to assume that you are not a leader until you have people reporting into you. In most cultures (organizations even) your worth is measured by how many people report into you.
But leadership is really much different from authority or influence. Most of the top organizations realize this. Leadership is your ability to take a path few would choose. Leadership is your ability to feel comfortable with being accountable for something. Leadership is willingness to put your neck on the line.
Did you say “neck on the line” ?
When someone writes on their resume that they have “leadership skills” (or “proven leadership skills”) more often than not it means that they have mastered the art of telling others what to do. Very rarely does it mean that they have taken risks and set the trend for others to follow. Very rarely does it mean that they have put their neck on the line. Very rarely does it mean that they feel comfortable being accountable for something.
The bottom line…
What my boss was trying to tell me was this: if you want to try a new solution to a recurring problem, if you want to take the path not prescribed by the company, you don’t need to be made the team-lead. All you need is the conviction that you are onto something…you need to take the first step yourself and learn your way through. It is always better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. When you try something new and fail, good bosses will never take it out on you. And the bad bosses ? Well you shouldn’t be working for the bad bosses anyway, should you !