The most significant question you must ask yourself when contemplating your leadership ability is why should anyone follow you? Before you can answer that question, however, you must know why you, yourself, have followed other people.
Why do we follow others?
Let's break it down into a very simple example. Have you ever been driving a well known road route only to find road construction occurring that causes you to have to detour? So you end up following the person in front of you since you don't know the area, making a reasonable assumption that person in front of you was likely heading the same direction as you since you both were on a long, well traveled route with a popular destination neither of you were close to yet. As more and more twists and turns erupt, you find yourself becoming increasingly disoriented with your surroundings. The driver in front of you may be just as lost as you, but since he or she is ahead of you, you are now faced with a decision to either trust their judgment, and follow, or make your own way whether you end up following that person or not.
What were the factors that made you decide whether to follow that person? Regarding yourself, were you confident enough in your own knowledge of your surroundings to feel secure enough to ultimately find your way back to the main road without assistance? The keys here were confidence and knowledge.
How do we know who to follow?
Now when it comes to who you were following, what would have convinced you to follow them, giving them the priority over your own instinct? These factors all boil down to perception. Did you perceive they knew where they were going? Maybe they navigated more quickly than you, as if to signify they were more confident than you as to which way to turn. Maybe you looked at what kind of vehicle they were in. Perhaps a work truck might mean they frequent the area more than you, signifying they have more knowledge and experience of the area than you.
But what if the person you were following was driving erratically, like a teenager? Or they were hesitating at every turn, taking a long time to decide which way to go, turning on the right blinker then changing it to the left blinker? The perceived lack of confidence and knowledge may dissuade you from trusting their judgment.
And that brings us to the single most important aspect of leadership: trust. All the other factors that led to your decision of whether to follow your own intuition or follow the person driving in front of you boil down to trusting in their perceived confidence and knowledge. Did they seem more confident and knowledgable than you felt? If so, you likely followed them.
Who we follow
So let's look at confidence and knowledge more closely. Both are largely comprised of experience and have to be worked at to attain. This is why we tend to view doctors as fit for leadership, for example. They have worked hard at obtaining their medical degrees and then continued on in residency programs to obtain experience before setting up an independent practice. Since it is public knowledge they have to go through a rigorous curriculum and spend years in training before acquiring the title of "doctor", the public generally tends to perceive doctors as trustworthy. This is why if we were to look at a picture of a used car salesman and a doctor side by side and were asked which one would make a better leader, in all likelihood the doctor would be chosen, simply because we know what the doctor had to go through to get into that higher societal role.
At the most basic level, we can see the foundation of leadership is nothing more than knowing more about something than other people do, having more experience than others do in that field, and, as a by-product, having the confidence that arises as a result. Then that foundation is cemented by others trusting in your confidence about your expertise.
But is that really enough? Not quite. There's still a missing element. It's the element that sparks a leader into existence. That element is authenticity. A good leader not only possesses expertise, confidence, and trustworthiness, but also remains true to themselves in an independent fashion. Authenticity is what attracts others to a leader because it is what makes them identify with him or her. This is where a leader must let their passion shine as an example for all others to see. Others will look to this leader with admiration and envy, as they will wish they could do what this leader inspires them to be able to do. For this to be accomplished, a leader needs to be immersed within the community of people that are being led, living as one of them, living transparently. If people can not identify with you, there will be no chance of ever leading them regardless of how intelligent or confident you are.
Helpful guidelines when building leadership skills
Now that we have the foundation of leadership established, here are some guidelines to help build your own leadership abilities:
- Never stop learning. Knowledge really is power.
- Never stop doing. Consistency is at the heart of what will develop your strengths, fortify your weaknesses, and train you to be a real expert.
- Draw on your expertise to lead others with humility. Humility not meaning a low-self-esteem, but a healthy respect for those you lead. This ties in with authenticity. You are not more valuable than those you lead. You need them just as much as they need you.
- Don't try too hard. Again, with authenticity and trustworthiness, becoming a leader should develop as a by-product of improving yourself and others around you. The role will naturally develop. If you are trying to convince others why they should follow you, chances are they will feel like you are trying to sell them something.
- At the heart of every interaction you have with people around you, by the end of that interaction, others should be leaving feeling empowered and appreciated. Overall, people you communicate with should feel better about themselves after talking to you or even just being around you.
- Know how to follow. Just because you are a leader does not mean you have permanently graduated from being a follower. If you feel like you no longer have to follow any one else, it will be a matter of time before you lose touch with the very ones following you.
- Respect leadership and be grateful for it once you have it. Do leadership justice by not cutting corners. Leadership is not something that comes easy but it is easy to lose.
- Since perception plays a large role in leadership, you may temporarily be able to deceive others into following you. However, authenticity and trustworthiness ultimately can not be suppressed. True nature will inevitably be revealed sooner or later.
- Let your personality shine through. You simply can not be someone you're not. Not for long, at least. Develop leadership through the medium that is YOU. Your authenticity depends on it.
- Don't be afraid to fail. Fear of failure paralyzes. Learning from failure leads to greatness and it helps you to overcome obstacles that otherwise would never be achievable if you were to freeze. Always push outside of your comfort zone.
Why should anyone follow you?
Remain clear-headed and know your place in whatever field you have chosen. Accept it with grace and work hard on moving up from there. With leadership comes great responsibility, so it is not for everyone. But if your passion is to empower others and push into the boundaries of the unknown, then leadership may just be for you.