This is a topic I get asked about often: how to lead when you’re not the leader. It always surprises me a bit, as I think that many of the skills and tools for good leadership are also required for good collaboration, good customer service – just good work. Everyone in a team, project, or work environment can contribute to success, and leading themselves and others is how that happens.
Everyone is leading someone else, not all the time, but regularly and often without knowing it. In any work where you’re interacting with others – a team, project, customers, or just your mates in your physical office space – your actions and behaviour send messages to others with cues about what you’re working on, what’s important to you, what you need and what you can (and can’t) do. In this way, those around you are led, or at least influenced, by you. Almost always within a group, there’s someone who is learning, and they may look to you – directly or indirectly – for leadership.
A recent article in INC Magazine includes some standard management skills – communicate clearly, be flexible, listen to and help others – as well as some that are essential for overall success. These four are ones that I’d put in the category of maturity and integrity, rather than skills per se. But they are important to mention as essential for survival and sanity in any working environment.
“Don’t be a doormat.” This can be tricky for those who’ve established work patterns – and by extension, reputations – for never saying no when asked to do something. But there is a tipping point between being eager and willing to do more and being taken for granted. Be polite but clear about boundaries and your capacity. When asked to take on work, consider whether there isn’t another more appropriate path and redirect folks to that. This is something that I’ve worked on, and have found effective in enabling people to get what they need without that coming from me. I abhor the phrase, “that’s not my job”, but often times, it isn’t. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t know whose job it is, and so I can facilitate someone getting closer to their answer or need by pointing them there.
This does not mean becoming “Teflon” – the person to whom no responsibility sticks. If you don’t have any responsibilities, then you don’t share in any responsibilities for success. And don’t be the “one with dirty shoes” – the person who’s always looking for someone to do their work, especially at the last minute. Yes, in a collaborative environment, we help each other out and pick up tasks when we can. But when people start ducking your calls because you’ve off-loaded one too many tasks on them, you’ve wiped your feet on their doormat once too often. Don’t be a doormat, but don’t treat anyone like one either.
“Take responsibility for your mistakes.” You screwed up. It is hard, but admit it and fix it. It happens to everyone (yes, everyone). The worst things you can do are a) try to hide it or b) point the blame elsewhere. Don’t be so cocky as to think you can cover it up – you can’t, and even if you can, it doesn’t go away and the effort to keep it covered will eventually be discovered. In the long run, it is much easier to clean it up than cover it up. Don’t throw your colleagues under the bus. If someone on the team made a mistake, then it’s the team’s mistake. But you demonstrate leadership and integrity when you put your hand up admit your mistakes.
And if you find yourself wanting to say, “but I didn’t know that”, first stop and ask yourself if you SHOULD have known – if the answer is even maybe, then bite your tongue and take responsibility like a leader.
Every leader has made mistakes. The good ones admit it, and are not afraid to say so and to change.
“Develop a thick skin.” Not everyone that you work with is going to be nice to you. Some people are just not nice. Sometime people have stuff going on in their lives that affects they way they work and interact. It’s not personal – it’s them, not you. Consider whether that slight you felt – when someone missed an important deadline of yours, or didn’t invite you to lunch, or used the last of the coffee AGAIN – is a personal attack or just something that happens. Regardless, in most cases, learn to let it go. You don’t have take ongoing teasing or insults (you don’t have to accept a toxic work environment), and everyone should behave respectfully and expect to be treated that way. Life is long, you have a long work life ahead of you, don’t sweat the small stuff. Leaders absorb a lot of small stuff all the time.
“Don’t ask for special treatment.” Stuff happens. That perfect storm of multiple deadlines, colleagues off sick, it’s your sister’s birthday and your car was towed. Special circumstances can certainly justify some exceptions. But exceptions should be just that – exceptional. Consider whether what’s happening is more or different that what you’ve dealt with before, or what others have dealt with. Perhaps it’s just life – karma is, well, you know. Or perhaps these trying times are an opportunity to demonstrate strength in the face of adversity. Maybe it’s time to try out those delegation and persuasion skills.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask for consideration for promotion, new opportunities, or accommodation when needed. Just remember that requests for these should be justified, and any accommodation respected and appreciated. The worst thing you can do for your career is abuse a privilege like flexible working hours or a training opportunity. When you ask for and get something special, treat it that way.
The tips listed in the article are certainly part of good leadership, and should be part of the tool kit for anyone aspiring to a leadership role. Promotion and advancement require that you demonstrate more than just the desire and potential for leadership – actually demonstrating leadership in any position you’re in will show that you’ve got the right stuff. Even if you’re not interested in promotion, these skills will enable your work to be productive, collaborative and rewarding.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.