A Leadership List for NOW

When I interviewed for my first job as a leadership developer, I was asked, “What skills are necessary for leadership?” This is the question that continued to haunt me for the next decade because no one really has a definitive list. I could easily blurt out the obvious: strong communication, teamwork, resilience, emotional intelligence…the list goes on. It actually just...keeps...going. Furthermore, for every skill or characteristic added to that list, there will be an example of someone exercising incredible leadership who doesn’t have that quality. So, what is the complete ‘leadership skills checklist’? Well, one size does not fit all.

Enter Bill George and his book, True North. After interviewing hundreds of high-level leaders, George deduced that the hallmark of a great leader is authenticity. The book is a good read (and now there is an expanded edition). If you’re too busy to read it, let me sum it up for you in a checklist (see what I did there?):

1. Become self-aware
2. Identify the values and principles that are most important to you
3. Know what motivates you and define your purpose for leading

The authentic leadership approach is the framework I leaned on most in my early years as a leadership developer. The authentic leadership approach helps individuals identify what they care about, what strengths they have, and stay aligned with those things in order to exhibit exceptional leadership that is transparent and authentic to who they are. Building skills is important, but if you are not clear about the purpose for why you lead, you may lose your way.

In fact, George recently wrote an article about why leaders lose their way. For an ambitious young professional, it’s great to read about these accomplished leaders as case studies and examples. However, it might lead young people to think that leadership only exists at the top. Moreover, it might be hard for people just starting out in their careers to relate to executives in order to figure out what to do NOW to develop their leadership capacities. Let me help. Below are George’s five behaviors for why leaders lose their way. Instead of sharing examples from seasoned executives and high-level managers, I provide some tips for what young professionals can do NOW to avoid these mistakes and develop their authentic leadership.

1) IMPOSTERS: imposters are driven by fear of failure. They overcompensate by “leading” through power and authority. They feel that, in order to lead, they must have all the answers and make all the decisions. They “fake it until they make it” by appearing to always be in control.

How to develop your authentic self now: As a young professional, you may feel that you need to have all the answers in order to show you are competent. You might pretend to know everything by asking few questions. Mistakes are hurriedly glossed over by the phrase, “I know and here's my excuse." Avoid derailing yourself by asking good questions. This shows you are curious, you are willing to learn, and you care. Your questions may even challenge your managers as to why things are the way they are and inspire positive change.

2) RATIONALIZERS: rationalizers are quick to blame other people or external factors and are hesitant to reflect on their part of the mess.

How to develop your authentic self now: Ask for feedback! Showing accountability for your outcomes and responsibilities will go far in how you establish credibility as a professional. I remember starting my first job and being overwhelmed with how much I did not know about my job and organization. My first thought was, “How long do I get to use the excuse: I’m new here?” Whether you’re fresh out of college or a seasoned executive, getting feedback will always help you grow and be better prepared for next time, without making excuses. Start practicing now.

3) GLORY SEEKERS: glory seekers want the credit and spotlight, and may stray from their values to attain it.

How to develop your authentic self now: Young professionals who exhibit behaviors of glory-seekers can often come off as overly ambitious in a self-absorbed way. This can cause distrust from the people you work with as you are quick to take credit for work that was a collaborative effort. Don’t undersell your contributions, but don’t forget to be generous with gratitude and credit. “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman

4) LONERS: Bill George describes the loneliness that leaders in high-pressure positions often feel. Loners tend to retreat and take on the work themselves, lacking trust to listen to others and delegate.

How to develop your authentic self now: This is not just an issue for high-stakes positions. I see this all the time with ambitious, young professionals who have become accustomed to success during their experiences as a student. They don’t trust others to do the work they know they can do themselves. This strategy may work for the short-term, and they may become an excellent individual contributor. However when you are tasked with work that is bigger than you, or if you should be placed in a management role, these behaviors that accelerated your career may be the very thing that derails it. Now is a good time to develop the skill of building authentic relationships. Authentic relationships transcend transactional relationships. By developing authentic relationships with colleagues and managers beyond the work itself, you can see how trust is gained and how conflict and debate can strengthen, rather than hurt, the work process.

5) SHOOTING STARS: Shooting Stars are so ambitious that they create an unsustainable pace of work for themselves, leading to burnout. They are looking for quick results and want to show their dedication and ambition through prioritizing work above family, friends, and wellness.

How to develop your authentic self now: When you say yes to everything and put more than you can hold on your own plate, everything becomes important because you’re perpetually at a tipping point. Ambitious, young professionals derail by jumping from one thing to another without pausing to reflect; thereby, they fail to identify what is most important and where the greatest return on invest is. Practicing mindfulness and balance to align values with priorities will help you sustain the pace you set for yourself. Taking the time to reflect will align your actions to your values.

Learning how experienced leaders have derailed is important for young professionals to avoid the same pitfalls. More importantly, there are very intentional things that you can do NOW to increase your capacities to become an authentic leader. So, in the spirit of checklists, here is a list of critical leadership skills young professionals can develop early on in their careers:

  1. Asking Powerful Questions
  2. Asking for and Receiving Feedback
  3. Giving Gratitude
  4. Developing Authentic Relationships
  5. Practicing Mindfulness and Reflection

It is a bit of a checklist, isn’t it? It's a good checklist, for NOW.

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Jump on 3. One...two...WAIT.

When I was in college, I decided to go to Australia for a semester abroad. I had never traveled outside of the U.S., and even my U.S. travels were limited. My first stop was New Zealand, the land of extreme sports and extreme natural beauty. Something clicked and it suddenly became critical that I experience everything as quickly as possible. Anything that was unfamiliar or scary AND got me excited became high priority on my list. So, among other things, I bungee jumped for the first time. In the terrifying moments before my jump, I remember the guy on the platform instructed me to look straight ahead and jump on 'three'. I asked him if there was a secret for success. His answer, "Don't hesitate." 

I held that philosophy through my travels and well into my emerging adulthood. As I grow older, a strange thing is happening. I would be ready to jump...and then hesitate. 

So why am I telling this story? Because this is my first blog post for my newish business. This week, I am "launching" TakeRoot. The truth is, TakeRoot has been up and running since October 2014. I have hesitated a long time to be active on social media and to market myself. Some people may think that the “jump” would be starting a business of my own. For me, what makes me most uncomfortable is the marketing of my business. I have spent a great deal of time convincing myself that I've been too busy with existing clients and initial business tasks to put myself out there on social media and marketing. I love the work that I do, but I hate the self-promotion piece of it. So, I hesitated. A lot.

I don't think this hesitation is unusual. Many of my coaching clients spend plenty of time telling me all the reasons why they can't embark on a new path or put themselves out there in a way that makes them vulnerable to failure or criticism. They, as I do, sound very convincing. These are the same people who aspire to be leaders in their organizations and communities. They are typically highly accomplished individual contributors, and they have a million ideas on how to save the world. Yet, they are hesitant to jump. Does this sound like you?

If you're interested in leadership and personal development, here's why it's so important to jump: there is no growth without a bit of fear, a bit of risk, and a jump into the unknown. The very act of leadership is the exercise of bringing people into a space of discomfort for the purpose of positive change. The process of personal growth requires experiencing and examining something new in order to expand yourself. You can't expect positive change and personal growth by watching the same re-runs. Embrace what makes you uncomfortable and act despite it. In fact, reaching for things that make you uncomfortable or unsure are habits you can build.

So, you need to jump. But how? Try this:

     1. Be brutally honest with yourself about why you're dragging your feet. You might realize that you're not acting on one thing because you don’t know everything (and you will never know everything). Usually, it involves admitting to a deep-seated fear connected to a deeply held characteristic, value, or belief. For me, I had to admit that I like external validation. Putting myself out there on social media and through marketing is highly risky for that part of me that feels valued through external validation. It ain't pretty, but it's true.

    2. Come up with every reason not to jump, then pick one small thing you can do to test whether those reasons are worth holding you back. We often prove ourselves wrong with these small tests. I tested my worries by starting an Instagram account (@gotakeroot). After a couple days, I realized it seemed silly that I hadn't done it already. So now I'm moving on to this blog. Some people call these "baby steps." I call them "experiments" to test whether the reasons for hesitancy actually stand up to the test.

    3. Have someone hold you accountable. Choose someone who doesn't feel the need to "fix” you or your problem. You have to do the work. Pick someone who will simply check in with you, ask if you have made the jump, and remind you why you've decided that jumping is important to you. If you need more from them, ask for it and be specific.

    4. Jump. It might still be scary and not at all easy, but perhaps that is precisely why you should jump. Do the thing that scares you AND excites you. You can't fly if you don't jump. 

Whether you're hesitant to act on an idea, feeling stuck on how to excel at work, trying to break an unproductive behavior, or feeling like you're not living up to your full potential, and you can't quite figure out how to jump, ask for help from people and resources who will challenge and support you. I can help, too. Though I work with all sorts of people and organizations, I specialize in working with young professionals (otherwise known as Millennials) to increase leadership capacities and professional excellence.  

As I hesitantly send this first blog out into the world, I invite you to jump with me. Let's get comfortable being uncomfortable.