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How do leaders become leaders?
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How do leaders become leaders?

The key to leadership isn't telling others what to do.

September 17, 2020
Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

There’s no playbook for becoming a leader.

When the average person finds themselves in a position to lead others, they usually start by managing things instead.

In a study of 40 enterprise-level executives, Harvard Business Review found that the process of becoming a leader often involves confronting unnerving surprises, facing entirely new demands on their time and imagination, making decisions in ignorance, and learning from mistakes.

This isn’t limited to executives. 

Across all levels of leadership, the most successful leaders embrace these challenges and share several common characteristics.

Here’s how leaders become leaders:

They shift from “tactician” to “strategist”

Many new leaders earn their position by being exceptionally good at getting things done.

But remaining rooted in the tactical aspects of your role is a surefire way to limit the impact of your leadership.

When leaders lose themselves in day-to-day operations like attending meetings and pushing projects forward, they don’t have much bandwidth to strategically lead their teams.

To be an effective leader, one must release their attachments to the details that don’t matter and adopt a strategic mindset instead.

According to HBR, you can cultivate this mindset by developing the following skills:

Level-shifting

A good leader has a fluid approach to analysis. They know when to sweat the small stuff, when to think big picture, and how to bring both perspectives together.

Pattern recognition

Identifying patterns in a complex business environment helps leaders draw connections between actions and outcomes.

Mental simulation

Leaders who can construct mental models can also better anticipate and more accurately predict how stakeholders and competitors alike respond to their company’s decisions.

They embrace volatility and remain agile

Change is the only constant in business.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, technological and societal change result in rapid transformations in the workplace that have the potential to impact emotional and psychological well-being.

From advancements in artificial intelligence to organizational restructuring, these changes will forever alter the nature of our jobs, creating new roles while forcing others to become extinct in the process.

This can be an opportunity to shine for leaders with change management experience, but it often throws the inexperienced leader for a loop.

According to a Mercer study on global talent trends, some members of the C-suite have begun tracking things like “change fatigue” and indicators of burnout in response.

No matter what changes lie ahead, becoming an effective leader means not only embracing change but anticipating it enough in advance that you can prepare your team and support them throughout the process.

By modeling the coping skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing business environment, effective leaders inspire their team members to become adaptable and measured contributors themselves through leading by example.

They focus on understanding, not commanding

It’s not uncommon for a new leader to step into their role expecting to make a huge impact. 

Unfortunately, this often comes without understanding the effect their actions might have on the organization as a whole.

When an individual contributor becomes a team manager, for example, their first inclination might be to overhaul a process they don’t like.

This isn’t always the wrong move, but in their quest to “make things right,” many new leaders become invested in changing things they weren’t promoted to address. 

In doing so, they also miss an opportunity to embrace entirely new goals that might better serve the team—and ultimately, the business.

As a new leader, it’s imperative to step outside of your functional comfort zone and resist the urge to “overmanage” the areas you’re most familiar with.

Instead, new leaders should focus on learning as much as they can about each team’s role within the organization, which includes knowing their priorities, respecting their challenges, and bearing both in mind before plowing ahead with new ideas.

It’s also imperative that new leaders invest in learning about members of their team.

While a manager might exclusively focus on making sure each team member hits certain KPIs or deliverables, a leader takes the time to understand what each team member values and where their strengths lie—and then they figure out how to leverage both to drive higher-level business objectives.

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Rob Lennon
Customer Education Lead at Hugo
Marketer and author with experience spanning a diverse 16 years in retail and SaaS startups across healthcare, mar-tech, and ad-tech, and productivity software sectors.

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