What does leadership look like to you?
Investing time and energy in improving your leadership can be frustrating. After all, no two people define it the same way. What does leadership feel like? What does it sound like? If leadership were an animal, what would it be? There’s just no universal answer to these questions. Focusing on getting better at what leadership means to you—or, worse yet, what it means to someone else—can lead to disappointment and dejection when those behaviors don’t result in increased responsibility at work.
The only universal definition of a leader is someone who is being followed. With this in mind, my goal has always been to spend less time “becoming a leader” and to focus instead on doing work worth following.
People interact with our work 24/7—emails, meetings, documents, presentations, etc. This creates an almost limitless source of opportunities to create followers. Within these myriad opportunities, I have found four attributes of leadership in the workplace that consistently inspire others to get on board.
Attributes of Leaders that Inspire Followers
- Driven by purpose. I’m not referring to finding your life’s purpose. I’m talking about having a purpose for each activity. Don’t just mindlessly reply to that email. Don’t just show up to a meeting because it’s on your calendar. Work worth following is done in a way that is fundamentally intentional and aimed at a real purpose. You’ll be amazed at how co-worker perceptions of you begin to change.
Ways to practice:
- Ask for clarification of your role in a meeting before you accept it.
- Respond to a group email with a genuinely curious, clarifying question.
- Cancel a standing meeting and send an update instead when no discussion is needed.
- Focused on quality. Everyone does their best work on things that are obviously important to the business—that presentation to the board, the test run for that critical product launch, etc. People doing work worth following bring that same level of care and attention to everything they do. Every meeting, every email, every phone call is handled with the focus necessary to make it the best it can be. This requires more attention, but doesn’t have to demand significantly more time and energy.
Ways to practice:
- Go to your sent-mail folder and find an email that was particularly effective in a specific context. Save it in a special folder to use as a template for similar future situations.
- Don’t multi-task during your next in-person meeting—focus on “reading the room” instead. Note body language, tone of voice, who’s speaking up on which topics, etc. Your input will instantly become more compelling.
- Review your meeting calendar for the next week. If you don’t have an agenda for a meeting, ask the organizer (privately) if they could send one (this includes 1:1 meetings and department-wide meetings). If you are the organizer, write an agenda and send it out as soon as possible.
- Informed by outside perspectives. Much has been written about the importance of listening for leaders. It is important, and it must be taken to the next level if you want to do work worth following. This requires taking in other people’s points of view and overtly incorporating them into your own perspective.
Ways to practice:
- When offering a recommendation or suggestion in a meeting, look for an opportunity to tie it to a relevant comment from someone else: “I agree with Jane’s point about XYZ. I also think [your unique and relevant point]. I think we should consider [your recommendation].”
- If a book, article, or blog post helped to shape your thinking on something the team is working on, share it with the group as something you found interesting and thought they might as well. It shows that your thoughts are informed ones, and you never know what new insights it could provoke in others.
- Committed to progress. People often focus so much on getting their point across (or refuting someone else’s point) that they lose sight of the actual objective. Emails and conversations become more about who’s right and who’s wrong than what is needed to move the project forward. Departmental politics, hierarchical power plays, and individual agendas are common distractions in office communications. People who do work worth following ensure that everything they do puts team progress ahead of other motivations.
Ways to practice:
- Look at the last 10 emails you received from an individual (skip the newsletters, updates, etc.). How many of them are clearly focused on progress toward a shared goal? How can your response help to guide the conversation back to a progress focus?
- In your next meeting, listen for conversations that are beginning to take the team off course. If it’s your meeting, be polite but direct in letting the group know that you’re going to move the conversation back to the topic at hand. As a participant, you can use clarifying questions to help the team get back on track. For example:
- “How does [insert current conversation topic] get us closer to [team goal or stated meeting objective]?”
- “[Name of person derailing the conversation], can you clarify how this is connected to [team goal or stated meeting objective]?”
It’s never too soon to start
I have had the privilege to work with people that I consider great leaders. When I think back to why I so gladly followed them, what comes to mind aren’t the big presentations, speeches, or off-sites. I think of the emails, the hallway conversations, the way they moved meetings forward without any implied authority. I think of the way they worked. You can be that kind of leader today—wherever you sit in your organization. You don’t need a title, a microphone, or slides—all you need is the work you have on your desk today. Don’t just check it off your to-do list; make it work worth following, and you’ll soon have irrefutable proof of your leadership—followers.
What does work worth following look like to you?