What can I do to be a leader?

Let's be honest. At least once everyone aspired to be recognized as an undisputed leader in a group of individuals.
No matter we are at work or we are playing a sport, all of us tend to scan people around and put our own skills under the spotlight. It happens by instict. As part of this same natural mechanism, all of us needs guidance. Someone to follow in order to learn something or to have protection, in order to increase our abilities or be told how to overcome an issue.
There's nothing bad or contradictory in that. For millions of years humans have been living together and have been strongly competing to be the best.

People who settle for clichés think about leadership as an innate attribute, a gift coming from mother Nature which allow few lucky individuals to mark their life with countless successes at the expense of others.
Like it or not, that is the most common feedback which emerges from public conversations outside scientific or well prepared audiences.

Now, if you are used to read theprojectmanagerpad, you already know that I like to restart from scratch when I deal with a basic topic. For the notion of leadership, that becomes an obligation! 

So, let me first clarify what the term "leader" is not a synonymous of: head, boss, chief, overman, lord, hero, general, CEO, president, superman... All these bombastic words sound like appropriate to invoke a true leader. And yet, for the reasons that we'll see in a moment, we are still far to have found out the identikit of the leader.


Leadership has to do with all the following items, but don't be hasty. We may see traces of leadership everywhere, let's see the whole picture.
  • A person with a high position in a hierarchyWell, you may certainly (and hopefully) find an authentic leader in a group of executives, however that's not 100% sure. Sometimes large organizations are driven by autocratic individuals who do not care about their team members at all. Those individuals try to match their personal targets, sometimes they meet them, sometime they leave a desert where they should have sown ideas;
  • Decision maker. Decisions are demanded at work as well as by personal needs. The way such decisions are made marks the difference. There are individuals who clearly suffer in holding an high level position or that lack in taking quickly their choices while people around suggest this or that. There are instead people who enjoy to collect others' suggestions and take a decision even in difficult moments.
  • A person with charm. This person can leverage on such attribute to inspire people or attract others' attention on himself. In the first case people are following a leader, in the second case people are probably in front to a peacock. An extraordinary amount of charm does not say anything per sé, while the purpose and the way the person uses that charm for determines whether he is charismatic and motivating for other individuals or if he is interested to be an Adonis only.
Here is the paradox: a glamourous general manager able to take quick and strong decisions can be an unparalleled leader or not. Nothing of his/her title, charm, decision making skills can tell us in advance if we are in front of a leader or to an unscrupolous, ambitious individual who is just interested in increasing the salary by trampling everyone in the downline.
Opposite profiles and yet so easy to confuse on the paper!


Both a leader and a follower need to satisfy an intimate and simple need: the first one needs someone to guide, while the second one is in the need to be guided. Both of those stereotypes are mutually satisfied and coexist in the same group. There is no leader without followers and viceversa.
So, here is the first trick to distinguish a leader in a population of managers. The trick is to search for his/her sincere followers. The more the leader is able to positively influence a group of people, the more such valuable attraction is measurable by the direct feedback of the followers. Be sure that if Mr.X is a true leader, you won't spend much time to collect enthusiastic opinions among his reports.
I have mentioned above the term "influence". Let's mark it: a leader has a solid social influence and has supporters who boost and champion him in a mechanism of symbiosis.
An autocratic boss can talk big and rule here and there, but you will easily discover if people around him believe or not in his thoughts and if they really care to give the best and fulfil his expectations.


As said, the domain of the leader is the social influence. But the primary target of the leader is to guide people toward specific achievements.
The experienced and authentic leader knows very well that the more you get out of the followers thanks to a positive motivation, the more chances are to grow as mentor and delegate tasks without be worried to fail.
In simple words: a leader influences others to get the maximum out of their efforts and reach a goal.

We are now able to dispel another myth about the leadership, namely the idea that the leadership is innate and immanent. While there are extrovert and passionate people who learn fast how to condition friends and follows, everyone can practice and improve leadership skills.


If putting black on white an empirical definition of leader took no more time than enjoying a good coffee, the reply to the above question isn't that quick.
If it is true that any sane individual is born with the tools which enable to influence other people, there are also countless factors that prevent a blog page from teaching in a few lines how to become a leader in all situations.
The difference in between all the contextual elements that shape an individual during life can be so significant (think about social and cultural environment, personal preparation, a particular creed, school, friends, family) that it makes unrealistic and pretentious the compilation of a standardized to-do-list-for-becoming-a-leader.

Said that, there are general principles to stick to, in parallel to a continuous on-the-field exercize tailored on your own background, aspirations and workplace.
  1. Expertize and experience will have a direct effect on your ability to lead people. The more you practice, the more you will be confident. Like in a sport performance. The quicker you get familiar with behavioral patterns and most common social profiles, the more instinctual your leadership will become.
  2. Be an example for the followers. An accountable leader who acts as first and adamant line of defense for the group is usually rewarded with trust and sincere appreciation.
  3. Listen and recognize the people that you need to lead. Be listened is a primary need and a true leader takes in high consideration each and every feedback coming from the team. In turn, the awareness to be a real contributor in the decision making process of the leader will energize the followers.
  4. Be clear in communicating the goal. With a grey zone in the roadmap, even the strongest team may lose focus and determination. A great leader knows how important is the clarity of the communication.
  5. Be positive and assertive. A leader has more chances to maximize the results by promoting a positive climate, free from conflicts, than threatening individuals reminding the potential consequences of a failure. This attitude does not prevent a serious risk review to be performed. People just give the best when feel to be in a winning team.
Finally, there are multiple ways to lead people, because there are multiple kind of people. According to the situational leadership theory, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970s, individuals can be grouped per maturity levels as follow:

          - Unable and insecure
          - Low experience and expertise, but high motivation
          - High experience and expertise, but low motivation
          - High experience and expertise and highly confident

Clearly, it is not worth to lead the above groups the same way.

The first group needs constant guidance to grow, they probably tend to hold on in front of unexpected events and wait for orders because they feel their weakness.
In contrast, the fourth group is expected to work dilingently and succeed without being watched every minute. It is up to the leader the correct identification and association of the team members with each one of the above groups.

There is much more to say about leadership and this article would like to be just a hint for curious people who starts looking in this field without having consolidated a direct experience in team management
My main suggestion remains not to rely on few magic bullets but to study, practice and try to accept all the challenges which may offer a sight on large organizations. If there is ever a shortcut to quickly improve leadership skills, that is working in a +1000 employees enterprise for some years.

Good luck!