When people ask me how they can make others see them as a leader, I think of the classic children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes. That is the one where the vain emperor is duped into believing his clothing has been woven from the finest (invisible!) fabrics and threads. He proudly parades through town wearing these elegant new (invisible!) clothes, unaware that he is wearing absolutely nothing.
Being a leader is often misunderstood in this same way. People mistakenly believe if they put on airs, they will look like a leader. But those airs conceal nothing. In fact, they draw attention to the very things we might ought to hide. When we try to be something we are not, we end up just as exposed as the emperor did.
Leadership is not about pretending to be something you are not. It is just the opposite — since true leadership’s foundation is credibility, being a leader requires you to be authentic.
I do understand what people mean, though, when they ask how to “look like” a leader. There are just some people who exude confidence and charisma, and others are drawn to them. They seem to inspire trust easily and naturally. Those are the people we think we should emulate in order to be seen as leaders. Sometimes we even label them as “natural born” leaders.
Let us tackle the second misperception first. There is no such thing as a natural born leader. Anyone can be a leader and, in fact, most people already are leaders in some part of their lives. This has nothing to do with a job title like yours — leadership is about behaviors exhibited, not titles bestowed.
Leading is learned. Leadership is made up of behaviors that are learned and practiced, and these are behaviors that anyone — even everyone — can acquire.
Leadership presence, then, is also based on these behaviors. What makes people gravitate to someone they see as a leader? I can think of three things, each built on a foundation of credibility. If you wish to be recognized as a leader, these are the three behaviors you should focus on exhibiting routinely.
Leaders inspire hope
No matter what your political opinion of Barack Obama, you have to admit he was elected in 2008 because he instilled hope in Americans at a time when things look bleak. The hope posters and his book, The Audacity of Hope, illustrated that he knew about the power of giving people something positive to believe in and look toward. Inspiring hope in a non-emperor means telling the truth, not sugar-coating reality. But within that truth, leaders find the positives and offer encouragement and ideas so others can see a brighter tomorrow.
Leaders include others in a meaningful way
Disraeli said “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” Leaders listen, understand and provide paths to meet the needs of the people they lead. They do not set their own agenda and then try to convince others it is the right agenda. Instead, they set their agenda based on what others need, and they believe meeting the needs of others is the right thing to do. They discover what is needed by including others, by working alongside them and paying attention to what could be improved.
Leaders are willing to step out into the front
Even though leaders pay attention to what people want and need, they do not allow themselves to be swept up by the “flavor of the day” or in the passing whims of others. They may adjust their course, but they will always keep their destination in mind and persevere to reach it. The leader’s constancy assures others. People trust a leader who maintains self-control and is calm, cool and collected even in the face of adversity. Leaders do not hang back with the crowd and rely on security and numbers. They set out into the open, vulnerable and exposed, when they need to. (Just not foolishly exposed by their own ego, like the emperor!) By doing so, they are taken more seriously.
What is it that enables someone to inspire hope even when they might not be feeling it? What does it take for someone to set aside their own agenda and instead craft plans to meet the needs of others? And how can someone step out into the front if they are scared or uncomfortable in doing that? It all comes down to having the courage of your convictions. If you truly believe in doing what is right for others, then you will be comfortable and courageous taking those bold steps to make it happen.
Try this. Think about what your team genuinely needs in order to feel successful. Consider where they truly clamor for leadership. Give it to them. Do not do it because you want to be followed, do it because they want to be led. Then you will have done what it takes to show up as a leader.