By: Mary Jane Alvero
We become leaders by taking purposeful action and responsibility for our choices, and forming a leadership identity. When we develop leadership competencies, challenging assignments and other organizational endorsements become more available to us.
Affirmation gives us the determination to step out of a comfort zone and explore unaccustomed behaviors and new ways of exercising leadership. An absence of affirmation, however, lessens self-confidence and discourages us from seeking growing opportunities.
The story of an investment banker we’ll call Alia is example. Alia’s career stalled when she was in her thirties. Her problem, she was told, was that she lacked “presence” with clients (who were mostly older men) and was not sufficiently outspoken in meetings. Her career prospects looked bleak.
Fortunately, both her reputation and her confidence grew when she was assigned to work with two clients whose Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) happened to be women. These women appreciated Alia’s smarts and her skillful way of handling their needs and concerns. In their own way, they started taking the initiative to raise Alia’s profile. One demanded that she be present at all key meetings, and the other refused to speak to anyone but Alia when she called—actions that enhanced Alia’s credibility within her firm.
“In our industry,” Alia explains, “having the key client relationship is everything.” Her peers and supervisors began to see her not just as a competent project manager, but as a trusted client adviser—an important prerequisite for promotion. These relationships, both internal and external, gave Alia the confidence boost she needed to generate ideas and express them forthrightly, whether to colleagues or to clients. Her supervisors happily concluded that Alia had finally shed her “gentle and mild-mannered” former self and “stepped up” to leadership.
Leadership is a learned skill
Learning how to be an effective leader is like learning any complex skill. It rarely comes naturally and usually takes a lot of practice. Learning must be accompanied by a growing sense of identity as a leader. Positive paradigm shift involves detaching previously effective professional identities and developing new and more appropriate ones. Yet, people often feel unsure about leaving the comfort of roles in which they have shined, because doing so means moving toward an ambiguous aftermath.
An effective leader focuses on purpose and takes up activities that are critical to his/her success, such as networking. However, many people elude networking because they see it as a farce, as relationships that are simply commercial and too instrumental in need to evoke interest and be allotted time for beyond work. Yet, when they see it as a means to a larger purpose, such as developing new business to advance their vision for the company, they are more comfortable engaging in it.
Leaders who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation. Effective leaders develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values. This allows them to look beyond the status quo and gives them a convincing reason to take action despite personal fears and insecurities.
Such leaders are seen as authentic and trustworthy because they are willing to take risks in the service of shared goals. By connecting others to a greater purpose, they inspire commitment, boost determination and motivation, and help colleagues find deeper meaning in their work.
Most leaders today run the risk of causing fear, antipathy, or envy when they approach their jobs by highlighting their competence and strength without first building a foundation of trust. Leaders would do much better to begin with trust through warmth and understanding. Beginning with warmth permits trust to develop, facilitating both the exchange and the acceptance of ideas.