Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of bestselling book Lean In says that, “Presenting leadership as a list of carefully defined qualities (like strategic, analytical, and performance-oriented) no longer holds. Instead, true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed…Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”
Not too long ago, I was invited to spend time with women executives at one of our region’s largest corporations. Here are a few of the imperfect insights on leadership that I shared:
- You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to rise to the top, but you do have to be strategic. Strategy calls for you to connect the dots in ways that other people can’t or choose not to. Most people think exclusively about their specific area or job function. Rare is the individual who takes the next step to think about another area or the implications of a decision for the entire enterprise. That kind of strategic thinking is transformative.
- To go to the top, you don’t have to have all of the answers, but you must be able to ask good questions. I have served alongside some brilliant leaders (corporate and community), and they all tell me to listen carefully and ask more questions.
- You have to be willing to take some intelligent risks. Taking risks means that you take control over your career instead of “waiting to see what happens.” I have met many people who stayed in a role five years too long. Taking intelligent risks requires you to put yourself in a position to be “discovered,” to raise your hand for the project that stretches and strains you. Succeed or fall short, people will remember your name.
- Sharpen your ability to communicate. Learn to communicate succinctly and effectively. Enough said.
- Be a problem solver and change your default from “It’s not possible” to “How might this be possible?” You will never be unemployed or without something purposeful to do if you focus on solving other people’s problems and keeping an open mind to solutions.
- Be excellent, always. Setbacks are inevitable, but failure is not an option. For most of my career, I have been an obvious outlier. It’s unfortunate but true. I have encountered people who didn’t expect me, and they did not do a very good job with the poker face. I recall one instance that made me particularly uncomfortable. I was executive director at a small organization. When I was introduced, it was clear that our guest assumed that I worked for the woman who introduced me. (There is a little more to the story, but I’ll leave it at that.) She was shocked and it showed. At this stage in my life, I still get double and triple takes, but I accept it as par for the course. My philosophy : be excellent, always. Setbacks are inevitable, but failure is not an option.
- Leadership comes in many forms. In order for us to change the trajectory of a generation, we have to recognize that leadership comes in many shades. We have to ensure that leaders, irrespective of gender, age and race, have opportunities to develop their skills and grow their impact in work and life. We have to realize that we all have subtle biases that are obvious to those who are the subject but invisible to us. This simple realization is very powerful and can help keep us on a path to regional competitiveness.