What Makes a Leader?

Leadership-300x199-1I have been thinking about this subject a lot since listening in on an ABA-sponsored panel discussion webinar last week, “Women In Charge: Rising to the Top of the Legal Profession.”  The panel was made up of women managing partners of their firms.  Each panelist credited individual opportunities, decisions and luck as contributing factors to their success. Each also credited supportive mentors, colleagues and spouses. But that begs the question—is leadership potential just luck and/or happenstance, or can we help make these factors happen? What other things—attitudes, approaches, techniques–can play a part in making one a leader? And can we learn these things? Can we teach them?

Answers to these types of questions and more were provided in the webinar materials in a chapter from a soon-to-be-published book, Learning to Lead—What Really Works for Women in Law, by Gindi Eckel Vincent.  The chapter provided a wonderful quick review of a number of sources and studies on women’s leadership, and provided a neat synthesis of the recurring themes.  I’ve distilled it even further here:

  1. Make a plan.  Rather than waiting for good things to happen to you, set your own goals and your own timetable.  And don’t stop there—find ways to create new opportunities. Feeling in control of your own course helps your energy skyrocket and makes you less likely to be sidelined by negative feedback or obstacles.
  2. Be authentic and optimistic.  Being true to yourself, rather than imitating someone else’s management style, is a key hallmark of leadership.  Further, cultivating a sense of optimism allows you to make more choices and take more risks, but it also inspires others to follow you.
  3. Take risks. One of the most common characteristics leaders share is the ability to step out of their comfort zone and into an uncomfortable place with confidence. One quoted source said, “In terms of psychological well-being, ‘climbers’ do better, despite the dangers of falling, than the people who stick to the safety of the low ground.”
  4. Build relationships. Cultivate different types of relationships–with mentors, supervisors, team members, colleagues, friend and supporters—to strengthen your leadership potential. But don’t think of these alliances as mere strategies to advance your power; rather, start with genuine interest in and commitment to helping and learning from individuals.
  5. Communicate.  Leadership communication takes two forms.  First, “tooting your own horn” or making others aware of your contributions and successes (traditionally a challenge for women). The author notes the irony that women readily tout the skills and expertise of a friend, but shy away from doing so for themselves.  Second, speak up so that your voice is heard—unless you can interject when necessary or communicate your contributions, you will not be able to advance your vision.

I look forward to reading the whole book, but in the meantime, I am taping this list to my bathroom mirror.  I also plan to share it with all the women I know, from those just starting their careers to those who may be feeling stalled or unfulfilled.  Even if you don’t currently aspire to being a CEO or managing partner, they are great tips we can all use to enhance our influence and leadership.

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