I have been a team captain for as long as I can remember. It started in my youth in athletics, carried over to student government, and continued on as I started working. I am grateful for these opportunities. But I know now that there is a big difference between being a captain and a leader.
A captain has authority, but a leader motivates a team to achieve more than they thought was possible.
The ability to lead is not a trait that you are automatically born with, like blond hair or blue eyes. You may have an opportunity to lead, but you will not immediately know how, like some gift granted to you at birth. You have to learn how to be a leader, and it is not easy. You have to want it, and then put the effort into developing those leadership skills.
I learned about leadership from the best boss that I ever had. She taught me that leaders start with clear goals, clearly communicate their vision, and then lead from the front. That’s leadership and it can be learned through earnest self-awareness and hard work. I have never forgotten those lessons.
I am now the CEO and a founder of Aha! (product roadmap software). I get to practice the art of leadership every day as I work with a distributed team of talented individuals across the U.S.
I am humbled by our growth so far as we now serve more than 20,000 users in innovative companies all over the world. I strive to be the best leader that I can be every day, and I take this responsibility seriously. My team is counting on me, and I do not want to let them down.
If you want to learn to be a leader, here is how I suggest you start:
Develop your strategy
You must first have a plan that people can get behind. Pinpoint one problem, and then delineate your vision for solving it. Establish a set of goals that you want to achieve and then communicate this strategy to the people you hope to lead. As you knock out those goals, set new ones that align to your strategy. In this way, you will start to build momentum.
Get out in front
You cannot be a leader by just sitting back and passively observing others as they tackle all the work. You need them more than they need you, so start acting like it. Prove yourself worthy of leading by working as hard — or even harder — than everyone else. When others see that you have a real stake in the success or failure of the project, you will begin to earn their loyalty.
You will make many mistakes as a leader, and some will be bigger than others. Do not give up at the first failure or remain blind to the reasons you stumbled. Instead, allow your failures to teach you how to be a better leader. Be honest with yourself and transparent with others. Evaluate, adjust and move on.
Once you start hitting your goals, you will begin to feel more comfortable as a leader. But as your confidence and authority grows, so can your ego. Do not let that happen. Remember the people who have helped you get where you are. You are standing on their shoulders. Always be mindful of the people on your team and throw credit their way. Admit to your shortcomings and lead with humility.
Make it a point to further your knowledge, especially when you think you have learned everything there is to know. When it comes to learning about leadership, I have found that there is no “done!” Every day will present new situations and challenges, and if you remain open to the learning opportunity, you will never be bored.
People have all kinds of misconceptions about leadership, and it’s time to dispel those notions. Leadership is not part of a person’s DNA — it is a skill that must be developed and then regularly enhanced.
The truth is that learning to lead others is hard work, and there are no shortcuts.
If you have the opportunity to lead, I encourage you to take it seriously. Start learning to be the best leader that you can. If you are ready to work hard, someday you will look back and see how far you have come, and how much more there is still left to achieve.