Want to lead?

Published 9 years ago
Want to lead?

Not surprised? Me neither; I’ve been thinking, talking and writing about this for years. But lately there seems to be something of a groundswell of recognition within organizations that good leaders are a critical component of success – and that we don’t have enough of them, especially when it comes to the leaders of the future.

A Right Management survey conducted in December of 2012 found that 32% of HR executives in the US, and 25% globally, put “lack of high-potential leaders in the organization” as their most pressing concern for 2013. Only 4% of US HR leaders said, “We have an ample leadership pipeline that will cover most of our needs.”

Why are employers feeling this need so strongly? I suspect it’s a function of the way business is changing. Even 20 or 30 years ago, if someone was a reasonably good manager of processes and relatively savvy politically, that person could go far in most organizations.

Now the leadership stakes are much higher. Everything runs flatter and faster: most organizations have fewer levels of management and fewer built-in hierarchical controls; there is much more information to make sense of on a daily basis; the rate of change in almost every industry has increased significantly (in some cases exponentially).

In addition, younger workers are less likely to stay in a company with bad leaders: they’re looking for (as Dan Pink points out in Drive) opportunities for mastery, autonomy and purpose in their work – and leaders who don’t even recognize those as legitimate needs, let alone work to fulfill them, are having a hard time attracting and keeping the best young talent.

In other words, if you can demonstrate to your organization that you have real leadership potential, there’s almost certainly a job with your name on it out there. Showing others that you’re a leader is very different, though, than simply saying, “I want to be a vice president.” (In fact, I’ve heard lots of senior people in organizations express frustration about junior folks who seem to expect to be promoted into executive positions within months of getting hired.)

So here are some things you can start doing right now to show the key people in your organization that you’re capable of leading:


Build influence: Because most organizations are flatter and more matrixed than they used to be, leaders need to accomplish more through the power of persuasion than by relying solely on position power. For instance, if I work in marketing and I want to create a strong social media identity and community for one of our products, I may need to partner with someone in digital who doesn’t report to me to get that effort off the ground. In other words, I’ll need to influence him or her to support my goals. Being able to build that kind of influence, even in an entry-level job, is a great demonstration of your leadership potential.

A few years ago, I watched as the assistant of a client of ours influenced the staff at a resort where her boss was doing an off-site to solve a variety of logistical problems that arose – and that were the fault of the resort – all without alienating them or having the problems negatively impact the event.  She was recently promoted to coordinator, and I suspect there are more promotions in her future.

Think outside your own job: One of the frustrations I hear most often from senior people is that their employees focus too narrowly on their own needs and constraints. Junior employees will often complain about organizational decisions, for example, without understanding the enterprise-wide factors that may have led to those decisions. If you want to be seen as a leader, make it your business to understand the larger organization:

How does you business work? What are the factors, in your organization, that lead to growth, and what gets in the way? What other functions does your part of the business interact with most, and how do you support each other? Take a step back from your particular job and look at how everything fits together.

Then the conversations you have with your boss and other leaders are more likely to demonstrate your broader understanding of the business, and build their sense that you could succeed, and support the organization’s success, in a broader role.


Learn from others. Great leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. If you come to work, do your job (even do it very well) and go home, having only minimal interactions with your colleagues, those in power are unlikely to see you as a potential leader. However, if you demonstrate interest in your colleagues’ opinions and ask them to tell you about things they’re interested in and know about, all kinds of good things will happen: 1) your colleagues will think you’re smart and interesting (it’s true – when others are interested in us, we tend to think better of them) and will be even more likely to share their wisdom and insight, 2) you’ll learn important and useful stuff that will help you grow as a professional, and 3) your boss and others will see you as hungry to learn and grow – vs. just hungry to get a promotion.


Make things happen: During the recession, I watched as two middle managers in a client organization went down two very different paths.  One of them focused on how difficult things were, and used the tough economic times as a excuse for why he was unable to do many of the things his boss asked of him. “You don’t understand,” he’d say.  ”People are freaking out; it’s hard to get them motivated.” “We don’t have the resources; we can barely keep things going.” Etc. etc.

Meanwhile his colleague, a woman at the same level and with roughly the same budget and number of employees, pulled her group together and worked with them to figure out how to overcome the obstacles. She wasn’t able to do everything she was asked – I’m not sure anyone really knocked it out of the park in 2009 – but she was able to accomplish most of it with the support and creativity of her team. The next year she was promoted, and her I-can’t-do-it colleague was let go.

It was a pretty stark example: The ability to figure out how to work with others to get things done, especially when there are obstacles, is probably the key thing bosses and HR folks look for when deciding whether someone has greater leadership potential.

If you consistently show up in these ways, your boss and other decision-makers in your organization will take notice. And the next time you ask for a bigger job or a promotion, you’re much more likely to get the answer you want.