Updated on 09.17.14

15 Tips on How To Be a Leader

Trent Hamm

Three years ago, one of my mentors was debating internally about how to handle a personnel situation. There were enough funds to employ one person. The performance of one worker was better overall, but the other worker often showed flashes of brilliance and was trusted more by his coworker.

In the end, the decision was made to keep the one with flashes of brilliance. After all, in my mentor’s words, “followers are easily replaceable, leaders are not.”

Ever since that day, I’ve thought a lot about what makes a leader. The person with flashes of brilliance clearly wasn’t a leader in the traditional sense – he was at the bottom of the pecking order. Yet he clearly was a leader in the more important sense. Other people trusted him and often turned to him when they needed help. He also was able to step up his game when it was needed the most.

Thus, he became much more vital to the organization than the steady, quiet employee who kept to himself.

What does it mean to really be a leader? It doesn’t mean having a title – that’s often just the result of already being a leader. It means being the person people rely on in a tough situation. It means being the person that steps up when it’s needed. It means being the person that gets people going on the things they need to do. It means getting the things done that you need to get done as well.

A leader with strong skills to back it up is indispensable to any organization. Here are fifteen ways you can start to become a leader in your own organization and make yourself more valuable there – even if you’re a quiet person who’d prefer to just get his or her work done.

Speak up at meetings.
If you have a genuine concern or a good idea in a meeting, speak up and voice it. Why? Quite often, your very concern or idea is in the mind of a lot of others around the room, only they’re afraid to speak up. By speaking up, you’re essentially giving their thoughts a voice without that risk. You’re being a leader for that group of people with that idea.

I’ve found that time and time again, when I do this, people will come up to me afterwards and say, “Thanks for saying that!” Right there, our relationship is stronger and they now look to me a little more than they did before. In at least one case I can think of, it led to a surprisingly strong working relationship.

Cut out the negative talk.
Talking negatively about others behind their backs does very little to help you. You might get the quick rush of feeling good from the ability to make yourself feel superior to the other person, but over the long run, you’ll have a very negative reputation outside of your tightest associates. If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it – it will damage the amount that people trust you. Plus, do you think people are saying similar things about you behind your back? How do you think that affects your reputation? A good tactic is a simple one – don’t run away from negative talk and don’t repeat it at all, but don’t contribute to it. Just ignore it and see it for what it is – usually jealousy on some level.

Offer up some positive talk, instead.
My tactic is to usually be quiet when people are being disparaged, but speak up quite a bit when the conversation is more positive. Making positive statements about others (and doing it consistently) does nothing but improve your reputation. Keep it to the realistic things, though – don’t just blindly compliment people.

Volunteer for the tasks everyone’s afraid to volunteer for.
Whenever a major task comes up that bears some serious responsibility and others are afraid to step up, step up. As with speaking up, by doing so, you effectively become the leader of the people who are interested but are too timid to volunteer themselves. You can take these people and channel them into being a part of the project.

Look for people who are struggling – and ask them what’s wrong.
In a workplace where people meet regularly and collaborate on projects, it’s often quickly clear if certain people are struggling or having problems. Quite often, these people are left to flounder by others who are too “busy” to deal with it, but by spending some time to find out what the real problem is, you’re often throwing this person a life raft which, if they climb aboard, can make them eternally respectful and supportive of you. When people are in trouble, that’s the time to approach them, find out what’s wrong, and find out if you can help without greatly upsetting your own boat.

Directly compliment impressive work.
If someone does good work, tell them right to their face that it’s good work, preferably in front of others. Everyone loves recognition and compliments and usually retain positive feelings towards the people who give recognition and deserved compliments. That positive feeling can often be utilized later on when you’re in charge of a team they’re on.

Tell supervisors when their subordinates are doing well.
This is a more indirect – but often more effective – method of the idea above. If someone does outstanding work, contact their supervisor and tell them. Face to face is often good, but even an email works for this purpose. Tell their supervisor exactly what the person did to go above and beyond the usual standard. This often results in an improvement in the workplace status for that person and, quite often, they end up realizing who offered up such compliments and recommendations.

Be willing and enthusiastic about team-based work.
I used to be a workplace loner and avoid team-based work. Eventually, though, I learned that team-based work is the absolute best opportunity you ever have in the workplace to build strong relationships with the people around you. The more you participate in teams – and come through with your part of the puzzle while helping in little ways with the parts of others – the more others begin to see you as reliable and trustworthy.

When you’re part of a team, take charge of it – but don’t be dictatorial.
My approach is pretty simple. If I’m a part of a newly-formed team, I’ll step up immediately and brainstorm a plan, then send it to the others for consideration. Unless someone rips it to shreds, it usually more or less becomes the plan and I’m the de facto leader of the group. It’s for the same reason as above – you’re usually speaking for people who are too timid to speak up or offer a plan and they’re happy for you doing that if you’re not pushy about it. I would usually do something like send out a rough plan and say, “Here’s my idea for how we should tackle this. What do you all think?”

Make a point to remember – and celebrate – your coworker’s life milestones and accomplishments.
One person I used to work with had a calendar he kept with everyone’s birthday in it along with their favorite two items from the vending machine. On their birthday, he’d go up to the vending machine, pop in $2, get their favorite soda and favorite snack, affix a bow (that he’d brought along with him) to the can, then stop by their desk and put them there, saying “Happy birthday!” with a big grin. It was small, but it came across as incredibly thoughtful – unsurprisingly, he was very well liked within the group and was often listened to and respected whenever he had any ideas or plans to share. Also unsurprisingly, he’s doing very well in life now.

Take two minutes to recognize the milestones and highlights in other’s lives. Keep track of them if you can. Find little ways to make everyone smile. Do these things and you’ll always win.

If there’s a problem you can easily solve, solve it.
Don’t worry about the political connotations or anything like that. If someone comes to you with a problem that you can completely solve or help solve without too much effort, just solve it. The more problems you solve, the more people look to you as a problem solver and the more they listen to your advice and what you have to say.

Ask for help when you need it.
Sometimes, you’ll need help. Some people are afraid to show weakness and avoid asking for help unless it’s absolutely vital. That’s nonsensical and inefficient. If there are particular elements that others can do much easier than you can, ask them for help (unless, of course, it’s a lot of additional work for them). This is the flip side of the coin from helping others whenever you can – if you’ve consistently helped others, they’re likely to help you.

Suggest events that involve your coworkers.
Be the person that rounds up a group to eat lunch together. Be involved in the planning of office parties – and even be the ringleader. Plan parties for people who are leaving. That doesn’t mean you have to do all the footwork, but develop the plan yourself. People will see you as a person who takes charge – and such events are simple to pull together if you just take a few minutes to do it.

Offer useful, detailed feedback.
In a busy world, it’s easy to just go “Looks good!” when someone wants feedback on something. Instead, take ten minutes and try to come up with three things that could be improved with the document. Preface it with a compliment on how good the project already is, put the three suggestions down as clearly and positively as possible, and finish up by saying something along the lines of wanting to turn something very good into something truly great. If the feedback is really worthwhile, they’ll again see you as someone to turn to when the chips are down.

When asked for your opinion, be honest but don’t be cutting.
Your honest feedback is much more valuable than being positive – but even if things are bad, you don’t have to be hurtful. I usually make an effort to compliment where I can, but if there are serious problems with what I’ve seen, I say so. Not saying so hurts them (since they present a poor product) and then, by association, hurts you (since you told them this poor product was good when it wound up dumping egg on their face).

These small things, done every day, make you simultaneously indispensable in your workplace as well as a person people look to as a leader. Who do you think will have their name come up the next time promotions are discussed?

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  1. Stephan F- says:

    What is driving me nuts right now is one of the committees I am on, I seem to be about the only one that pushes for any kind of closure on a topic. I have just been doing it for them and giving them what they need so they can do the stuff with their people. Getting any kind of action from them or even feedback is like pulling teeth. I hope something good happens from all this but I am not seeing anything happening at all. Crazy.

  2. Susan D. says:

    None of these qualities is exclusive to a leader–a good follower usually has them too, or the leader wouldn’t be able to be effective.

    @Stephan F–you criticize your fellow committee members for their lack of action or reluctance to give feedback, but have you considered what you may be doing that could elicit that kind of response, or lack of it? Pushing and prodding can be easily interpreted as bullying, and that doesn’t encourage cooperation.

  3. Followers easily replaceable, leaders are not. So So true!

  4. Johanna says:

    Have you stayed in touch with your mentor enough to find out how that personnel decision is working out for him/her? Are the “flashes of brilliance” really enough to compensate for that employee’s poorer overall performance?

    Also, not all of these suggestions would work in every workplace. My coworkers, for example, are not too timid to volunteer for tasks they are interested in. When there’s a task that nobody volunteers for, 99% of the time it’s because really, truly, nobody wants to do it, because everybody recognizes that it’s going to be tedious and unpleasant, with relatively little glory at the end. If I volunteered to take on all these tasks, I’d get a reputation not as a leader, but as a doormat.

  5. steve says:

    Many times people who are dreamers or thinkers by nature can have uneven performance, because they tend to let themselves be drawn into various thoughts and ideas that might be related to what they are doing, but not immediately relevant to what is going on. This allows them to have insight into alternate ways to do things that may be beneficial (looking at alternatives to current reality is one type of dreaming).

    I tend to behave this way myself. Lately I have developed the ability to be “on task” more though so my overall performance is better.

    Routine type workers (what my coworker calls “worker bees” which is not a disparagement as she refers to herself this way) are extremely valuable in any organization and do the bulk of the actual operations work. It’s good to have some dreamers on board too to help deal with changing conditions or alternative possibilities for, perhaps, redesigning the routine. Of course in most organizations, “dreamers” do a lot of worker bee stuff too because 95% or mor of most work *is* worker bee stuff.

  6. justin says:

    I noticed you took the post down on October 1st about car buying choices. Couldn’t keep up with changing amounts of miles you said you were gonna drive the Prius?

  7. “Directly compliment impressive work.”

    I’ve used this one very often. It’s good for everyone, including the person offering the compliment because it breeds instant favor and loyalty from the listener.

    What I’ve found to be effective is offering compliments to people who are somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as production. A lot of people are sitting in the middle because management isn’t willing or able to outline proper or doable expectations or directions. A lot of people are floating within an environment of weak or confusing leadership.

    When you compliment such a person, it gives them some direction–some of them may never have heard a compliment from anyone for any number of reasons. What ever the reason, when a person who normally doesn’t get compliments suddenly gets one, performance usually increases.

    Sometimes managing such a compliment may seem like a stretch, but the outcome usually more than justifies the compliment. People seem to step up when they’re given a pat on the back.

    It’s a mystery why more managers don’t put this into practice.

  8. I was struck by that example of the man who wrote down his coworkers’ birthdays and their favorite vending snacks, then gave them on their birthdays with a little bow. That is really something that has frontloaded effort, then very minimal effort day-to-day, with very high impact. And it really is quite thoughtful. I really like that idea. I wonder how I could go about finding out what people’s birthdays and favorite vending machine items were without being creepy…

    My second thought is that your ideas are very good ones, but in moderation. Speaking up at most meetings is a good idea – having to say something at every one, or not being able to shut up makes you look like a narcissist or blowhard.

    And if you’re not careful, you can be manipulated by your coworkers into being the voice of criticism when they don’t have the guts or don’t want to look bad – and while you’re only saying what EVERYone else is saying, you end up with the label as a troublemaker or jerk. I learned this the hard way in grad shool – I should have known that B-school would be fraught with the kind of people to do sneaky stuff like that. Anyway, I could always be whipped up by hearing everyone complain about something, but not do anything. Turns out I was helping resolve the situation for them, but while they benefited from my speaking up, they left me swinging in the wind looking like a jerk who liked to complain, and pretended they had no problem with the situation. Nice. I caught on (slow but not stupid!) finally and learned to shut my mouth, and gosh how weird that people had to learn to stand up for themselves! That one was a bit of a bitter lesson for me, and now I watch to make sure that the hand on my shoulder isn’t actually reaching for my back to stab me :)

  9. Trent,

    Your post made minor mention of a point that I think needs emphasis–the need for a title.

    I see so many managers (leaders) out there who are more “into” having the title than they are doing the job.

    I have spent the better part of my professional life in management and one of the best things I’ve learned over the years is a line I use with my subordnates all the time. I tell them that “Our jobs are almost exactly the same, I just have a little bit more responsibility than you do.”

    And I believe those words and I live those words on a daily basis. A manager willing to get down in the trenches with his subordinates will have their respect forever.

  10. Craig Ford says:

    “When your part of a team, take charge.”
    Someone once told me to work as if you were getting paid one pay grade higher. If you simply fulfill expectations it will be difficult to increae your circle of influence. If you work beyond your pay scale it will be noticed by those around you.
    You will earn leadership when those around you see you taking initiative.

  11. andrej says:

    (personal pet peeve vent)
    David (#9), management is NOT the same as leadership. The idea that managers are leaders is one of the lies of the cult of management that pervades our society.

    Management and leadership are usually orthogonal activities and sometimes they actually clash.

    Managers who focus more on status than their work aren’t leaders. Hell, most managers who do a wonderful job of management also aren’t leaders.


  12. Michael says:

    Johanna, I step in when nobody wants to do a tedious task IF I can transform the task into an easier or faster problem. That impresses people. Otherwise, I like to watch the “ambitious” person bury themselves alive while the rest of us stay in the game for the long haul. :)

  13. Jo says:

    A lot of people are floating within an environment of weak or confusing leadership.

    Kevin, regarding the above, you hit the head on the nail. And there you have it! In my work situation, I am good about following all but one of those tips, which I will not discuss here, lest I digress.

    Anyways, the problem I’ve seen time and again, regarding leadership is that: a) there is virtually no consistent communication skills betwixt themselves, and b) I swear the leaders way at the top of the food chain tell their store managers to be sure to check all common sense at the door, prior to going inside.

    Steve #5, I regard this as “stepping outside of the box.” There is truly nothing wrong with doing this, as long as the project is done correctly and in a timely manner. Anytime I am given a task, I find a way to do it as efficiently as possible; if I have to do it, then let me do it the way that it’s comfortable for me.

  14. Being brave is volunteering for the dirty job no one else wants. It gets you noticed!

  15. Nimmy says:

    I often hear or read that it’s better to preface an honest, critical evaluation with a compliment. However, this was expressly discouraged in management school as it was said to send conflicting signals. One of those areas where management and leadership is different? Or simply a matter of valuing the relationship rather than the work produced?

  16. Nimmy says:

    management and leadership *are* different…

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