When I first encountered the philosophy of leading where you stand, I felt a rush of unworthiness and unqualification. After all, I was early in my career—who was I to pretend I was a leader? Fast forward a few decades and I am an advocate for leadership across the career lifespan—including yours.
Consider a two-lane highway. Are you more inclined to stay safely behind a slower car, minding the double yellow lines, or are you waiting anxiously for the dotted white lines to appear, plotting your triumphant passing of that slower car? While the double yellow line is a real boundary, the slower car is actually only a perceived boundary: it will not hinder your progress if, at the right time, you choose to get out of your lane and pass it.
Now, consider your career.
What boundaries are preventing you from either perceiving yourself as a leader or modeling leadership behaviors? Then, consider whether those boundaries are real or perceived. If you are like me, that introspection resulted in a realization: my boundaries are fake! I was accepting boundaries established by fear, self-doubt, culture, environment, and politics. I was letting untruths about myself and opinions of others dictate my professional (and personal) narrative. This realization is what allowed me to get out of my lane. The following truths may also help you to embrace your leadership role:
Leadership, like kindness, is a trait unbound by gender or rank.
A historic perspective of leadership that consisted of traditionally masculine traits and available only at certain career levels has recently moved into the category of myth busted. Current research shows us soft skills are essentially for effective leadership and that women leaders are often perceived as more effective than are male counterparts. However, effective leadership is not reserved for a specific gender. Rather, the behavioral manifestation of valued leadership traits determines leadership effectiveness. Demonstration of leadership traits may result in promotion and increasingly visible opportunities, but leadership itself comes well before rank.
She who learns quickest wins.
Leadership is absent without introspection. Learning I was my own barrier to my success was equally as important as completing my PhD. In fact, I likely would never have done the latter without the former. From introspection emerged confidence, skill, and opportunity. I not only continue to be introspective, but also consciously work to become a more valuable employee. Continuous learning models essential traits of effective leadership, including humility, change management, and problem-solving. All of these traits are applicable at every level, and opportunity often follows.
You are the most important brand.
Effective leaders magnify their strengths, which form the foundation of reputation. Think of those who you would describe as effective leaders. What about them makes them effective? Then, consider your own traits and identify your strengths. How are you currently magnifying those strengths and what can you do to develop them? One of my greatest strengths is reliability; I do what I say I am going to do—and, perhaps more importantly, people believe I will do so. Reliability is, therefore, the strength around which I have built my brand. While I continuously work to sustain that reputation, my emphasis on that strength has resulted in focused attention to increasingly effective leadership and in career opportunities that reinforce a positive brand. So, what’s your brand?
There is no replacement for a good sponsor.
Formal and informal mentorship are valuable resources for career development; yet, a reputable sponsor may catapult your career. While your mentor and sponsor may be one in the same, the sponsor’s specific role is one of advocacy. The sponsor assists in finding opportunities for you to serve in formal and informal leadership roles, gain positive exposure, build your brand, and aligns his or her powerful reputation with yours. These allies are relevant at any level of your career and have been instrumental in my personal growth and achievement.
“Yes” is one of the most important words in your vocabulary.
Far too often, those perceived boundaries prevent us from taking risks that follow those three simple letters: y-e-s. Say it to yourself and say it aloud—often. If you feeling underqualified to take on a committee assignment or apply for a promotion, say, “Yes!” There are others who are underqualified and will apply regardless of your initiative and others who would gain the exposure and success you could have achieved on that committee. Accepting more yeses demonstrates leadership behavior by modeling controlled risk-taking and results in skill development, confidence building, personal brand awareness, and enhanced networks. Practice your yes!
To wrap up, let’s go back to the highway.
When approaching a slower vehicle on a two-lane highway and bound by double yellow lines, it’s fine to set your cruise control and allow that vehicle to lead. However, feel free to downshift and take advantage of the dotted white lines. After all, that’s why the dots are there in the first place. You have the same level of control within your own career as in the analogy—there are two important choices: what kind of car to drive and when to get out of your lane. I might not be flashy, but I am reliable . . . and I hope my driving inspires others to cross those dots every now and then.
See you on the road!
Jessica Egbert, Executive Vice President of Strategy and Engagement, Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions