I've been thinking a lot about leadership in recent weeks. What does it take to be a leader, what qualities to you need to have and is leadership something that can be learnt? This thinking (always dangerous!) probably started when I attended Stephen Abram’s recent talk about Leadership and Librarians. I’m not going to attempt to blog the full talk here so instead I’ll link to Niamh Tumelty’s write up.
So what is leadership? Well, leadership is NOT management. This is probably not news for a lot of people but it’s worth repeating. Like many I've always assumed that I would have to work in a management position before I did any leadership. There are many examples of people who aren't managers but are great leaders and there are also many managers in the world who don’t know a lot about true leadership! One of the main points that I took away from Stephen’s talk was that a leader is someone who sees an improvement to be made and tries to do something about it. Anyone can be a leader, even introverts like me. Stephen showed that a lot of people claim to be shy but really shyness is a condition which affects only a small percentage of the population. Most of these people are introverts which means they spend a lot of time thinking things through before they act, hopefully resulting in a well thought out decision.
Another reason that I've been thinking about leadership is that recently I've been giving a lot of advice to colleagues, about both work and career issues. Training people is part of my current role and something that I really enjoy, which surprised me at first. I’m very nervous about giving people advice in case I turn out to be wrong or say something completely stupid, but I've found that the more training I do the more I love it. There’s something about helping people learn something new or overcome a problem which is really satisfying and that's great in any job. People have also approached me about general career advice such as interview techniques. Although I've had more than my fair share of interviews over the years(!) this is an area I feel less confident in as it’s so important to get right. I’d like to think there’s a reason people are asking me about this though, so I’m trying to help in the best way I can. A willingness to help others is another leadership quality which I think that people often underestimate.
Being a leader means that you can’t please everyone all the time. This is something that I’ve struggled with since I’m a definite people pleaser at heart. There comes a time though when you have to do what you believe is right rather than just following along with someone else. Another thing that Stephen mentioned was that taking risks was fine as long as they were in context. I think this is tied into not pleasing everyone. In order to take risks the chances are you will upset someone who would rather just let things stay the same. Taking risks is an important part of change, which in turn is good for growth. If you have an idea which could work then give it a go – if it doesn’t work then at least you know what not to do next time!
One thing that I've learnt from my recent experiences is that it’s OK to admit that you’re good at your job – people wouldn't keep coming to you for help and advice if you weren't. I wasn't a massive fan of Sheryl Sandberg and the whole Lean-In craze but one thing that I did take away from the book was that if you don’t shout about your accomplishments then no one else will. It’s perfectly fine to admit that you have done well in something as long as you don’t venture into boasting.
Some people are natural born leaders but I think that many of the best leaders (and I’m by no means counting myself in that list!) develop the skills over time. For more thoughts on accidental leadership see this excellent blog post from Maria Giovanna De Simone.