Even though your job title might put you closer to the index of your company’s organizational chart than its table of contents, there are ways to lead at every level and set yourself up for more responsibilities — and rewards — at work.
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To help with that, here are 21 tips on how to become a good leader from executives, entrepreneurs and leadership experts who can help you climb the career ladder, even if you’re starting at the bottom rung.
Last updated: Sep. 24, 2021
Be a Leader, Not a Boss
True trailblazers don’t need fancy titles to convince others to follow their lead. Robert Evans Wilson Jr., an award-winning empowerment speaker and author, says leaders have a clear mission they care about and stay true to it. If you know your mission, you’ll be able to articulate it to yourself and others and set goals to accomplish it.
“Anybody with power can be a boss, but it takes a great deal of caring to be a leader,” Wilson said. “A boss can force people to do things, but a leader cares about their people, the mission and the organization. Because of that, people want to follow. Authenticity is simply being who you are. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about refusing to compromise on values and principles.”
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Hone Your Storytelling Skills
Storytelling is one of many key leadership qualities, according to Bill Corbett Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations Inc. The reason, he says, is that people remember relevant stories and apply their lessons. Effective stories also help build rapport and trust and also teach others how to be a good leader.
“Leaders who speak theoretically or discuss what ‘should’ be done often fail to connect directly or emotionally,” Corbett said. “Stories show the human side of people and allow for a more personal and emotional connection to be made. The most effective storytellers are able to use personal stories or examples, or take stories of others and mix them with their own tales of success, or failure.”
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Excel at Your Job Responsibilities
It might seem obvious, but one way to set yourself apart as a leader is to excel at your current work responsibilities and always challenge yourself to do more, whether you’re in the mailroom or management office. According to executive coach and management consultant Jeannette Seibly, you should “wow the client by completing work on time and within budget to meet their needs.”
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Be Open to Learning New Things
Other experts join Seibly in her opinion that developing new skills can improve your performance in your current position and also make it easier for you to rise through the ranks.
If you want to take on advanced roles and responsibilities, you should always be on the lookout for learning opportunities, whether that means taking professional development classes offered by your employer, getting a useful certification before it’s required or connecting with a mentor who is willing to share the lowdown on what it takes to be a leader.
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Be Willing to Pitch In
“Helping others succeed is important for your own success,” said Seibly, who runs the Denver-area business coaching and consultancy firm SeibCo.
This goes not only for the people on your team or in your department but elsewhere in the company since, in the end, your paychecks all come from the same place. Assisting others is also a great way to expand your skill set through on-the-job experience.
Be an Idea Person
You should also be willing to collaborate with co-workers to share ideas, when appropriate. “See others as valuable contributors and build on their ideas to develop win-win-win outcomes,” Seibly said.
Business News Daily has reported on research that indicates sharing ideas tends to encourage others to do the same and increase everyone’s creativity. Experts suggest creating effective imagery and storylines to help sell your ideas in the workplace, which again emphasizes the importance of mastering strong storytelling skills as a leader.
Volunteer When Things Need to Be Done
This might mean offering ideas or solutions to a problem in your department or taking on a “stretch assignment” that actually takes you a bit beyond your knowledge and skill set in order to give you opportunities to learn and grow. To strike a balance between being stretched and strained, seek out extra assignments that you’re highly motivated to tackle, that build on your strengths and that will help you develop skills that give you a leadership leg up later in your career.
Communicate With Co-Workers and Supervisors
Make a habit of keeping your team up to date on progress as well as potential pitfalls and giving your boss regular status reports, particularly on special projects.
“Staying in communication builds trust, new opportunities and pay increases,” Seibly said.
Be Open to Feedback
While you shouldn’t cater to every critique, you should be willing to make changes and adjustments in response to savvy suggestions. Similarly, anyone interested in learning leadership should also seek out a trusted mentor or coach.
“Every successful person has a coach that supports them in being great,” Seibly said.
Be a Mentor
Everyone is an expert at something, and they should own and share their mastery, said Amber-Lee Lyons, founder of the lifestyle coaching firm The Chakra Girl Co. “Hold a workshop to teach your peers, of all levels, how to advance in the area you’re best at, whether it’s communications, public speaking or wellness,” she said. “People want to learn how to better themselves, now more than ever.”
Help Everyone on Your Team Excel
Ultimately, a leader is someone who can make many other people in the organization perform at their best, according to Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps, Inc. As a route planner for salespeople in the field, he knows someone has real leadership potential when they go out of their way to assist others.
“A great example of this was when one of our customer success people, Dave, kept a list for a month of every single question that came up in customer interactions and then wrote out the answers,” he said. “Then he teamed up with his manager to build out training materials for the whole team. Today, the questions and answers that he captured are a key part of our training materials for new people on the whole customer-facing side of the organization.”
Admit When You’re Wrong
Many believe being wrong is a sign of weakness and a vulnerability that must be hidden from their bosses and teams, said Debra Tenenbaum, senior vice president and chief people officer at AppDirect.
“In my experience, however, an authentic leader is a person who is responsible for their words, actions, and decisions,” she said. “This leader owns their mistakes, doesn’t hide from them, and refrains from passing the blame. Authentic leadership is most powerful when you not only take accountability for a mistake, but also learn from it and make the changes necessary to correct it.”
Walk the Walk
When executives at Tennenbaum’s prior company, YapStone, wanted to emphasize accountability across the company, they started with their own actions, showing that effective leadership starts with solid everyday habits.
“We knew that if we wanted to implement real change at YapStone, it had to start with our leadership team,” Tenenbaum said. “Asking if we were leading by example, showing up to meetings on time, sharing the right information and letting employees do their jobs,” she said. “By changing our behaviors, we have been able to shift the behaviors of our employees. The end result has been a more positive work environment and company culture.”
Don’t Complain — Especially About Other People
In every organization, there are people who believe the way to make themselves look good is to make others look bad, said Lisa Sansom, executive director at Queen’s University.
“They believe, perhaps implicitly, that this is the way to get to the top — by squashing others. However, it is poor leadership material to be putting other people down,” she said.
Similarly, it’s important to understand everyone has bad days or weeks at work, including you. Effective leaders, according to Sansom, don’t dwell on downtimes.
“Take the long view, and take the positive view,” she said. “Celebrate what’s going well, including your own achievements and accomplishments. It is much more strategic and uplifts everyone, as excellent leaders should do.”
Question the Status Quo When Appropriate
Staying positive is important, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up when needed. Sometimes challenging the status quo is essential to help keep your company moving forward, said Marie Hansen, Dean of the College of Business and New England School of Communications at Husson University. If you question policies and procedures, though, you should be willing to listen to the reasoning behind them. He also recommended going in armed with suggestions and solutions for problems you pose.
“Timing and place for these questions are also important,” Hansen said. “Public settings where a company is presenting is usually not the best place to question why things are happening the way they are. Instead, look to internal meetings at varying levels — i.e. one-on-one meetings, management meetings, open forums. The conclusion here is to know the audience and think about the public perception of your question.”
Build Your Personal Brand
Founder and vice president of Advantage Payroll Services Rob Basso is also the author of “The Everyday Entrepreneur,” he maintains a business website, as well as operates a personal site where he shares insights and information, writes a blog and posts media coverage that includes him.
“I brand myself at the same time as I market and brand my business,” Basso said. “My competitors in my industry and in the New York market don’t do this and, for me, this is a strong competitive advantage.”
Many web hosting platforms are free and easy to use even for those without coding experience, so aspiring entrepreneurs and others can start sharing their expertise and position themselves as industry leaders now.
Build Your Network
Jon Michail, founder and Group CEO of the corporate and personal brand advisory organization Image Group International, also recommends blogging as a way to sell your leadership skills. Speaking at events and conferences is another good way to get your name and your expertise out there. Film your appearances and post them on your website and on social media platforms. Finally, reach out to others who share your mission.
“It’s easier than ever to network with the people who you admire — sometimes all it takes is a friendly tweet,” he said. “Successful networking is a collaborative two-way street. If you get an opportunity to guest on someone’s blog, make sure you return the favor.”
Be an Unnamed Leader
Anyone can be a leader regardless of their title, said Steve Garguilo, founder of the personal training and coaching organization Cultivate and co-author of “Surge: Your Guide to Put Any Idea Into Action.” These unnamed leaders use vivid stories to illustrate their vision of the future and enlist people to go there with them and advocate for others’ good ideas and win the right to question the status quo through hard work.
“The most important thing for these individuals to do is to deliver exceptionally well in their day-to-day responsibilities so that they earn credibility and respect. Once they have earned those, they can be bold in presenting different points of view.”
Be a Careful Communicator
Being prepared for meetings and important discussions and paying close attention to emails and other business communications will help set aspiring leaders apart from others who watch the clock or skim past important information. The qualities of a good leader also include active listening, said Dory Wilson, a training and development expert and founder of the career advice site Your Office Mom.
“An aspiring leader needs to talk less and ask more questions,” Wilson said. “This will help create an environment where others engage, and share their opinions more freely. You know the saying there’s no ‘I’ in team. There isn’t one in leader, either.”
Think Like a Leader
Once you resolve to learn how to be a leader, you’re well on your way, whether you’re an intern or a new entrepreneur, Wilson said.
“When individuals, regardless of title or role, decide they want to be a leader, it can happen,” she said. “I believe the simple desire to be a leader sets the stage for leadership to manifest. It’s a mindset.”
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Christian Long contributed to the reporting for this article.