What does it mean to be a leader?

When people talk about being a leader, they talk about setting goals, managing teams, and driving change. But being a leader is so much more than that and so much less. Anyone can be a leader or not, from the intern to the CEO. So what does it mean, to me, to be a leader?

What does it mean to be a leader?
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My experience comes In the context of software engineering, but I believe this summary would apply to leaders in any industry sector.

"Leadership refers to the ability to exert influence and inspire others towards achieving common goals and delivering high-quality outcomes."

So instead of focusing on traditional people management, leadership should be focused on the power of influence and the ability to guide and shape the direction of people without formal hierarchical authority.

But what does that mean in more concrete terms?

Breaking down leadership

Here are some of what I see as key aspects of leadership

1. Vision and Strategy

A leader needs a clear vision, a purpose (a why), and the ability to communicate a strategic direction to help reach that vision. The vision and strategy will inspire and motivate team members to align their efforts towards this shared objective, providing them with a sense of purpose and an understanding of how their efforts directly impact success.

(and execute)

At least, that’s what I wish it said off to the side. It’s been a long time sine I’ve done both of those things – too long.

I’ve spent the last couple months funemployed and figuring out exactly what I want to do. I found a job a long way away from home that fit the bill and tossed in an application the other day but I’m pretty sure that I won’t get it for one reason or another.

Anyways – putting the application together was a lot of fun. It let me dream like I haven’t since I was in university, and getting it all down on paper was pretty liberating.
Photo by Randy Tarampi / Unsplash

2. Communication and Collaboration

Effective communication is crucial for any leader. You should be able to clearly articulate difficult concepts to expert and non-expert stakeholders and team members. Having the ability to foster open and transparent communication whilst enabling and encouraging collaboration across different roles and departments will also be crucial. To be an effective leader, you need to be able to act as the glue that will bind together everyone into a cohesive whole, all working toward the same goal.

It's a Lego World.

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3. Trust and Respect

Leadership requires you to build influence and credibility among team members and stakeholders. To be able to do that, you need to build trust first. This takes time but is most easily achieved through demonstrating your expertise, actively contributing to discussions, being a willing collaborator on other people's problems, and establishing a track record of making sound, well-considered decisions. By earning the trust of others, your opinions and input will hold more value. Exercising that trust well, you will build up a track record of successful outcomes, resulting in respect for your actions within others. With this trust and respect, you will be more effectively able to inspire them to act on your ideas and vision.

Photo by Ian Schneider / Unsplash

4. Decision Making

Leaders must make well-informed decisions that positively impact the team and project outcomes. By leveraging your respect and trust, you can guide discussions, facilitate consensus, and ensure that decisions are based on diverse experiences and considerations. Ensuring these outcomes are aligned with your vision and the business objectives will only compound the trust and respect people have for you.

life is a succession of choices, what is yours?
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros / Unsplash

5. Expertise

While not always mandatory, having strong expertise in the discipline/industry you're attempting to lead will help you speak the team members' language and further gain their trust and respect. This expertise helps them feel confident in your vision and gives them someone they feel will provide valuable insights and guide them successfully through difficult challenges. It's not always possible to have expertise from the outset, but by utilising your skills in communication and collaboration and working to build the trust and respect of your team, you can begin to learn from others and become one.

Photo by Rita Morais / Unsplash

6. Continuous Improvement

As a leader, you can influence the long-term success of the team and your vision by promoting a culture of continuous improvement. You need to demonstrate this mindset yourself, being vulnerable, speaking openly about your weaknesses and how you want to address them, and seeking input from your team on how to improve. This will encourage a culture of continuous learning, experimentation, and feedback that will improve everyone's communication, collaboration and sense of team belonging. By being an example of introspection and continuous growth, you will constantly inspire the team to enhance their skills and drive excellence in outcomes.

Step up
Photo by Jukan Tateisi / Unsplash

7. Mentoring and Coaching

Leadership is about developing the next set of leaders. Leave the door open, the ladder down, and pull others up! The most effective way to do this is via mentorship and coaching. By sharing your knowledge, providing guidance, offering support, asking the right questions, and slowly delegating your responsibilities, you will empower individuals to develop their own leadership skills and expertise. This approach helps ensure that even without you, the team will succeed, and your vision will be a success.

Yoda in the forest
Photo by Nadir sYzYgY / Unsplash

A leadership summary

In summary, leadership is about earning trust and respect, inspiring others to act, and building the next generation of leaders. You don't need to be a hierarchical manager to do this (although, admittedly, it can help); you need to communicate well, be a good team player, and help those around you be a little better.