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Preparing to be a Leader: five things to consider

Nigel Girling
Nigel Girling
Head of Professional Qualifications
Preparing to be a Leader: five things to consider

Anyone who is expecting or aspiring to be a leader of the future really needs to get ready. It is a critically important role, but not something to undertake without a bit of prior reading, reflection, and planning.

Several key things need to be very clearly understood by any aspiring leader.

1.The role of a leader is about service, not just authority.

Some set out to pursue a role as a leader for the status it brings, the greater earning potential it allows or simply the power it confers on an individual. While all of these things may well be associated with a leadership role – especially at the higher levels – it is important to recognise that the role is essentially one of serving others.

A leader needs to be a support, a guide, a mentor, and a team builder. They need to be a listener, a flag-bearer and a symbol of vision and hope. It’s undoubtedly a rewarding role to have and one which enables a leader to use every skill and capability they have – but it isn’t easy or straightforward. Any leader with many years of experience will tell you that they are still learning, still finding out new things and still trying to become a better leader. That never ends.

2. The role of a leader is about people, not just processes or goals

Whatever else the leadership role asks of you, your success and influence will largely be the result of the efforts of others – so your ability to influence, engage, inspire, and enthuse others is fundamental. Even if you don’t yet hold a leadership role, you can start to develop and hone those skills.

The ability of a leader to achieve things will usually be the result of good relationships – which are generally about regular human interaction and building rapport. Become good at this, and the role will be a lot easier.

3. The ability to communicate with clarity and to really hear people is fundamental

Leading isn’t just about issuing instructions, though that may be a regular part of the role. An effective leader must be a good communicator and that means listening as well as speaking.

When we really hear other people, it is not just about the words they say – tone, body language, nuance, and the things that they don’t say can be every bit as important as what they tell you. An effective leader must learn to really hear people and to understand what they mean, how they feel and how they are responding to you as the leader.

When the communication is from you to them, you need to be skilled at saying exactly what you mean and using words that will have the right impact on others. It is rarely helpful to intimidate, upset or anger people if you want them to help you and to support your aims. Instead, seek to engage them and win their trust and support. You will often need it and especially when times are tough.

4.There is often a big difference between being a leader and being a boss

A leader is someone that other people look up to and want to follow. Someone who deserves their respect and is trusted. Someone they admire and want to please. Someone they can turn to in times of difficulty and someone who’s advice they will seek when they need guidance.

Sometimes a ‘boss’ is just the person in charge of an area or who has jurisdiction over a function, department, or team. You may well have that jurisdiction, but it’s always better to also be a real ‘leader’ and someone that people see as being worthy of the title.

5. Leadership and Management are often slightly different – but related – things

The role of a leader may come with the job title of ‘manager’, so it’s important to understand the subtle differences between trying to ‘lead’ something and trying to ‘manage’ it.

In essence, management is about controlling things and ensuring that people comply with the rules and perform to a standard. It is often about other things too, but this is the basis. It has been said that you should ‘lead people and manage things’ and this is a good working definition for any aspiring leader.

Often, we need to go further than simply ‘managing’ to ‘lead’ something in a particular direction – usually one of improved performance and better outcomes. More often than not, that is the result of inspiring people to perform at their peak and engaging them in a vision that they really want to achieve, so that they are intrinsically motivated.

Often managers and organisations try to motivate people using extrinsic means – such as bonuses, rewards, and benefits. This is typically far less effective than the intrinsic motivations of people wanting to do their best, feeling inspired by the work they do, and being part of a team that they want to help to succeed.

There is so much more that any aspiring leader will need to learn over time – but this set of five things is a great place to start.

Once you understand these things, you may well find you are ready to enrol in a professional qualification, read some great management books and articles and listen to some podcasts.


To learn more, listen to our podcast on the subject of “Preparing to be a Leader” below. If you enjoy the podcast, please subscribe via your preferred podcast channel.

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