You Don’t Have To Be a “Leader” To Be a Leader
I sometimes get asked: What is leadership? How can I become a leader?
Usually the general frame of reference is a leadership role in an organization. Often the person asking is an individual contributor or a young leader, aspiring to become a better leader. Sometimes it’s a deeper question that really translates to: “How do I get people to follow me?”, but sometimes it’s more mundane: “How can I get a Director title”. Or more general like “How can I progress into a CxO role later in life”. Sometimes the individual is already in a leadership role “by title” — currently a CxOs or VP — but not yet fully comfortable with their leadership style or impact.
Most of the time they also have a theory on how to get there. Like getting an MBA, or gaining more experience, or reading books on leadership, or setting stretch goals, or being “more authoritative” etc. They feel that there is some glass wall between where they are and where they aspire to be, and that wall can only be broken by some event or milestone or particular behavior that exerts their authority in some way.
I don’t think any of that is true. Here’s my perspective on leadership.
I) At an individual level, leadership is a mindset.
Mahatma Gandhi dedicated his life to free India from British rule. Nobody gave him the formal power or authority to do so. Nobody even asked him to do so. He saw a problem. A wrong. And decided to act vehemently yet peacefully to right it. He started as a one man army, and inspired millions of people to join him. He was a leader.
Every single day, every single minute, we see problems around us. We can either ignore them or do something about them. By design, we are selective about what we act upon and what we ignore. Some of us tend to act more and some of us tend to ignore more.
Everything you see around you is a result of someone doing something to make it happen. Companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon which changed the way we live were started by mortals like us with one difference: an extraordinary motivation to solve problems and an ambition to match. No one believed them initially, but everyone followed them eventually.
But you don’t have to be Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg.
You could be the junior most person on a team. But by having an irrational biastowards action, you are being a leader. Every time you go out of your way to fix that bug, or add more test cases, talk to more customers, find more leads, or close more deals, you are being a leader. Every time you inspire people with action, you are being a leader. Every time you make an attempt to own and solve a problem, you are being a leader. Every time you do something to help others around you, you are being a leader.
Some people, especially in large corporations, believe that a leadership “title” gives them the “authority” to lead and be more effective. If you need a title to be heard, “you” don’t have a voice. Don’t seek authority at the cost of self respect.
Leadership is your right. Exercise it with action.
Some people believe that leaders are born, not made. I disagree. I believe leadership is a mindset that can be developed with practice. If you are determined to act and make a difference, no one can stop you. In fact, leadership is as much about people wanting to follow you because they trust you and your intent than it is about a fancy display of authority or any formal title-based assignment of role.
There are three things you can do to develop that mindset:
- Do uncomfortable things that get you out of your comfort zone. By design, we do things we like and enjoy. When we start doing uncomfortable things, we grow. If you see a problem and want to do something about it, act.
- Have a bias towards action. If you want to do something, fix something, act. If someone else is doing something inspiring, help. You have nothing to lose. Don’t expect anything in return.
- Surround yourself with people that inspire you. Who you work with is equally if not more important than what you work on and where you work at. If your colleagues don’t inspire you, you’re not in a growth environment.
At LeanTaaS, one of our guiding principles is “lead, follow, or get out of the way”. We just closed our series B round and are growing fast. We’re hiring engineers. If you’re an engineer who wants to take ownership of problems and solve them, come join us.
II) As a formal role within an organization, leadership is like parenting
A lot has been written about what leadership means in organizations, but in a nutshell, it’s a lot like parenting.
First and foremost, it’s a privilege, just like parenting. An enormous responsibility to do right by a group of individuals that trust you with their most important asset : themselves. Whether you are leading a team, a team of teams, or an organization, nothing matters more than making sure you do the right thing for people that trusted you. That basically means putting them first.
Second, it’s an obligation. To do everything you can to help them achieve their goals and succeed. Just like parenting, that involves a lot of coaching, mentoring, pushing, making them get out of their comfort zones, and more.
Great leaders create great leaders.
Third, and most important, it’s a vision. To collectively achieve something that is larger than themselves, that lives beyond their time and that matters in the world. In the context of startups, it is getting to that true north where you want to go, which will make the brand last forever.
Here are three leadership lessons I live by:
- Be yourself and be authentic. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t worry too much about leadership styles, communication tricks or other tactics. The most effective way to lead is to just be you, unapologetically.
- Do the right thing. Always ask yourself what’s the right thing to do as a team or organization. Stay true to your stake holders.
- Inspire with action. Whether it’s building a culture or dealing with a crisis, actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach.
Sanjeev Agrawal is president and chief marketing officer of LeanTaaS iQueue. Sanjeev was Google’s first head of product marketing. Since then, he has had leadership roles at three successful startups: CEO of Aloqa, a mobile push platform (acquired by Motorola); VP Product and Marketing at Tellme Networks (acquired by Microsoft); and as the founding CEO of Collegefeed (acquired by AfterCollege). Sanjeev graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an EECS degree from MIT and along the way spent time at McKinsey & Co. and Cisco Systems. He is an avid squash player and has been named by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of the top entrepreneurs innovating in Healthcare.