Leadership is not about a position or a title. Leadership is an action. We make leadership decisions every minute of every day, both at work and in our personal lives. When we speak up for what is right, either at work or in our home lives, we are demonstrating leadership. When we decide whether to be patient with or rude to the store clerk, that is an act of good or bad leadership. We model good or bad behaviors in every moment of our lives and exhibit good or bad leadership in doing so.
I have benefited from the wisdom of leaders who came ahead of me, and I have also counseled many less seasoned women (and men) about their careers. I give many tips, but typically my advice includes letting people know you are interested in leadership opportunities. Be sure your supervisor and others in positions who may make appointments to key committees or positions know you are looking for the opportunity to grow as a leader and that you are willing to take on added responsibility.
Having been in a position of needing to identify people who will take responsibility for projects, committees, and positions, I have found firsthand that it is hard to identify new people for leadership roles. Typically, the same handful of people do everything and are selected whenever there is a need because we don’t know much about the people who have not yet been in a visible leadership role. I would love to give you an opportunity.
Simply serving on a vital committee or chairing a key committee can be enough to raise your profile so you will be more likely to be identified for additional responsibilities. But also remember that it is not enough to agree to serve so that you can list it on your resume. You must do a good job. You must actively participate in the work, be a cooperative member of the team, and demonstrate good judgment and responsibility. It is not enough, in other words, to simply network and name drop. You must demonstrate your leadership when given the opportunity.
You must develop the reputation as someone who gets things done and who works well with others in a group. Leadership is not always about taking charge. Sometimes good leadership means following instructions and meeting deadlines. Make a reputation for yourself as a good person to have on a team and you will soon be asked to lead a team.
I also advise that when the opportunity presents itself and you are asked to take on a leadership role—say yes. We are all familiar with the quote from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Too often, I have learned that individuals are looking for a leadership opportunity, but they decline when I ask them to lead something. They often say it was not the kind of leadership opportunity they were looking for. This may be the only opportunity they are offered.
Few of us jump from anonymity to a highly coveted position of great responsibility in one step. Rather, most of us must pay our dues by serving in many less exciting, less glamorous, and even unpleasant roles before someone decides to offer us a plum assignment. In fact, I would argue that it is in those less desirable roles that we learn about ourselves, sharpen our skills as leaders, and demonstrate courage and responsibility to prepare ourselves for greater assignments in the future.
Just say yes to being the kind of leader we need in this world, every day, in all you do.
Margaret Venable, President, Dalton State College (GA)