The Challenge of Leadership: What makes a leader

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

This question has been haunting many of us for most of our careers. What makes someone a leader? Particularly, can you be recognized as a leader, if you do not have direct reports? What truly defines someone as a leader?

First and foremost characteristic of a leader is the ability to influence people’s thoughts and actions. Admittedly, you do not need any kind of formal designation to affect the opinions of your friends. Thus, even in the workplace, this is a task that is definitely possible to accomplish without an official title, direct reports, or the implicit power that comes along with a certain position.

This is also one of the most important concerns for a project manager and comes up as a job interview question fairly often. How do you motivate a team to deliver the results, if they do not report to you? How do you manage without authority? These questions are asking the same thing: how do you influence people, who – theoretically – do not have to do anything for you, because you are not their boss? Unfortunately, this is not a skill that is taught as part of the PMP certification.

Since I am an individual contributor in my current role, influencing people without direct authority is a challenge that I have faced many times. So what does make a leader? And how do you accomplish things without direct authority?

I wholeheartedly agree that all of characteristics on the list that is usually provided as a response to this question are necessary to influence people. However, one of them is the foundation for the rest – likability. We all have heard the expression “people do business with people they know, like, and trust”.

Thus, the second step to becoming an informal leader is being the kind of person people like (first one is networking). This leads to another question: What kind of people do people like? Surely there are as many answers to this question as there are personalities. However, in general, people are naturally drawn to people who are friendly, who smile a lot, who are approachable, and leave them feeling better after every encounter. Those are the people who they are more likely to listen to and to trust enough to allow into their heads. Their willingness to listen to your opinions and values is, in a way, a permission to an attempt in influence.

Everything else on that list of top qualities that are typically attributed to great leaders comes after that initial step of likability.

  • Authenticity
  • Vision & inspiration
  • Courage & confidence
  • Initiative
  • Teachability
  • Creativity
  • Intuition
  • Etc.

Unfortunately, these things are not as obvious and cannot be effectively conveyed when you meet someone for the first time. You have to work to establish yourself as having those attributes. Which is why I am a huge proponent of leading by example. Actions speak louder than words. Even though as a leader you often do speak in front of people and verbalize your vision, your intentions, your feelings towards your followers, ultimately, it is the way you act that will earn you the permission to influence.

What is your definition of a leader? What do you believe makes a leader? What characters or actions make you a leader?



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