Leadership is mistakenly portrayed as an exclusively intentional activity. Most commonly, we think that we need to make a speech to lead. It’s allegedly a matter of making a deliberate appeal to people to follow us along a particular path.
Leadership can, however, be shown by example and even unintentionally. Every time you achieve something at work against the odds, work extra hard, propose a better way of working or simply set an ethical example for others, you might be having a leadership impact on those around you without knowing it. The old saying "actions speak louder than words" shows that we follow what people do more than what they say. If you want to be seen as a leader, you need to understand all the ways in which you are already showing leadership. If you focus only on your intentional leadership efforts, you will have a narrow view of leadership.
Compare leading to selling. If you have the sort of personality that makes you a natural salesperson, you will often sell people on things, say taking a trip to your most recent vacation spot, without even realizing it, let alone intending to sell them on this action. Just describing where you spent your recent holiday in vivid, passionate language has an impact on people even though you may not intend it. People without this natural gift who want to become better at selling need to learn and practice sales techniques in a very conscious way. Similarly, if you want to improve your leadership effectiveness or change your leadership style, you need to make a deliberate effort to behave differently.
But this is not the whole story. Whether you are in a formal leadership role or seen as an informal leader, you are already doing all sorts of things that are having a leadership impact on those around you. If your work is of high quality, your colleagues will be taking note and some will be trying to follow your good example. Such unintentional leadership is much more common than is generally recognized. We all watch and learn from each other. Thus whenever you do something that works you might be having a leadership impact on others.
We all play to our strengths at work, otherwise we wouldn’t be successful. Because everyone has strengths that others don’t have, playing to them can have a leadership impact on those around us. Unfortunately, we have a bad habit of overlooking our strengths. The fact is that everything we enjoy doing and find easy to do is indicative of strengths, but precisely because we find them easy, we discount them. We say, surely anyone can do that! Or, that’s just my job. We shrug our shoulders while others are amazed at what we have done. It comes naturally to us but is a struggle for others.
If people look up to you at work, you have no doubt shown leadership to them in a number of ways other than your intentional leadership efforts to show leadership. This is important because if, like most people, you tend to discount your strengths, you may be unnecessarily agonizing over what you need to do consciously to show leadership when you are already doing enough, or at least 80 percent of what others want from you in the way of leadership.
You might ask: "Why should I consider these everyday actions leadership just because others follow my example or do what I suggest?" Well, the answer to this question is another one: "Why do you only count as leadership really heroic, high profile acts?" If leadership is indeed about influencing people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise, then you might well be showing some small scale, local leadership every day.
The bottom line is that when you think about improving your leadership effectiveness, be sure to recognize that you may just need to round off an already good enough picture. It may not be a matter of starting from scratch. If you want help in determining how you are showing leadership now, have someone interview a few of your colleagues and ask them to name two or three things they are doing differently since working with you. Perhaps someone in your HR department can gather some feedback for you around what things you do are viewed by your colleagues as showing leadership to them.
The next question, given that you don’t have to start from scratch, is this: How can you build on the good things you are already doing? There may be some common themes across the people interviewed, but keep in mind that leadership is in the eye of the beholder, so everyone might want something slightly different from you. Like successful sales people, leaders need to flex their approach to move different people.
In conclusion, start to develop yourself as leader by determining the minimal changes you need to make for maximum improvement in your leadership effectiveness. This is just good strategic thinking.