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Leaders lead, and you can, too

Think you might be cut out for leadership? This advice will help you plot your path and take the first steps

Building your career is a journey filled with challenges, excitement, and forks in the road. And journeys are easier with maps. In this column, job experts answer your questions and deliver advice to help you take the next step.

Question: I was told that I might have leadership qualities—does that mean I should try to become a manager? If so, I have no idea where to start.

Answer: It’s true that good managers have great leadership qualities. You can also be a leader in many ways, not only by working as a manager. Either way, building your leadership skills is a great place to start.

So much of leadership stems from confidence, said Cindy Healy, a director of business operations at Microsoft. And one of the reasons becoming a leader takes time is because it takes us time to build our confidence and gain the skills to lead—it’s a journey that evolves over a career and a lifetime.

“I don’t believe in the concept of being done—you are never going to be done with yourself. Being a leader means you believe in moving the needle, that you keep on learning,” Healy said.

When you stop working on yourself, that’s when self-doubt creeps in, Healy said.

The good news is that developing leadership—whether you’re just starting your career or looking to evolve it, and whether you want to manage people or lead by example without being in management—is the best way to grow your confidence.

Leadership is like a muscle: once you get going, you have to keep using it to grow it, Healy said. Here are some tips to help.

Get in touch with who you are

The first step toward leadership is to know your core values, Healy said. “If you are leading from your authentic self, that gives you the platform to take the reins on something. You have to be comfortable with yourself, because leadership starts with you.

“Get in touch with the best future version of yourself: what is that person calling you to do?”

Once you figure out what is most important to you, ask yourself if you are demonstrating those values to others. Are you already being the kind of leader that people would want to follow?

“Spend some time thinking about what kind of leader you want to be,” Healy suggested.

In other words, walk the walk.

Check your ego at the door

Leadership isn’t going to fall in your lap, Healy said. You have to look for opportunities to lead, and they are likely all around you. For instance, is there an opportunity to begin leading in your community? Starting small, or outside of your workplace, is OK.

As you look for these opportunities, take notice of what you respect in leaders. What do the people who you follow all have in common?

“Leadership is more than how many people you get to boss around,” Healy said. “My boss always says, ‘leaders lead.’ Another good piece of advice: ‘Lead from anywhere.'”

Find a mentor or coach

Mentors or coaches can help you get where you want to go, Healy said. She’s benefitted from both and is now in the process of becoming a credentialed coach herself.

“Mentors are going to give you career advice. They can help you navigate a company or build your network, and they can open doors for you,” Healy said.

“Coaches are going to help you figure out what’s in the way between the now and your vision. They sit on the outside of an organization and help you clear barriers. Some of this might be them holding a mirror up to you and helping you see where you are getting in your own way. This can help you grow as a person and a leader and preps you to take on bigger and bigger risks and challenges.”

Speaking of risks . . .

Sometimes the risk you need to take is as simple having a crucial conversation with someone, where you say something that needs to be said.

There’s a type of risk where you see an alternate path for a project or initiative—maybe you have a vision that no one else sees yet, said Healy, who once took a risk that helped change her career trajectory. That can happen in your current job, or it can be taking on something totally new.

No matter what, just know that self-doubt is totally normal.

“A lot of people worry about whether it’s the right time to take on leadership, to take on risk,” Healy said. “There’s never going to be a right or a perfect time. Get over the ‘timing’s not right’ thing. You know your capabilities and your vision for your life—does this move make sense in the bigger picture?

“When I’m making a decision on whether to take a risk or try something new, I write out the pros and cons. I sleep on it. I consult my ‘board of directors’—my trusted advisors,” she said.

Also, as you pursue the path to leadership, remember to recognize and enjoy your accomplishments and learn from and embrace your failures. A strong leader cherishes both and translates this into empathy for the people they are privileged to lead.