Truth: It feels bad when you have something important to say, but nobody stops to listen. Or when you have an idea, but nobody asks you to contribute. It feels especially bad when you see yourself as a leader, but others aren’t treating you like one. I’ve been there.
Organic leadership in an organization, or within a team structure of any kind, isn’t about job titles. A title does make someone a boss and de facto leader, but organic leadership is available to virtually any team member. These leaders are not bound by — or anointed by — titles.
The people the boss listens to — and the people that other leaders seek out for collaboration — have those opportunities because they are perceived as valuable. Value comes in a lot of forms, but at the leadership table, it comes at the idea level. Value means innovation and experimentation. With seeking new concepts, new angles, new solutions. And it most certainly comes with initiative — with not waiting to be asked, assigned, or (especially) told.
You don’t need a specific title to be an organic leader, but you must show that you bring something new to the equation. There are a lot of people who follow through, work hard and dedicate themselves to getting the job done. Those people are utterly fundamental to every single organization and team. Leadership is about asking questions, looking for things that could be better, and then proposing solutions and ideas. And for organic leaders, this process begins without prompt. Their value comes from finding ways to do things better, even (and especially) in places where problems may not be readily apparent.
Turning on a light in a dark room is solving a problem. Looking for ways to better illuminate shadowed areas of a room is leadership.
Earning a seat at the leadership table takes effort and patience. Here are a few things that can help open doors:
- Do the good work. Leaders must be dependable and dedicated first. Be trustworthy. If it’s confidential, protect it. Pitch in to make your boss and coworkers look good whenever you can.
- Treat other leaders with respect. Resenting existing leaders (however great they may or may not be) because they have what you want will only sabotage your goal. Convert resentment into curiosity. Spend time with a leader you know, and listen to learn more about how he or she thinks. Something as simple as carpooling to and from a meeting can be valuable time to listen and gain insights about the processes and future of the team around you. Ask a leader what your greatest strength is, and how they see that strength being valuable to the entire team. That gives you a specific area to think about how you can share your value effectively.
- Own your authority. This isn’t about entitlement. (“I deserve to be treated as a leader because _______________.”) Owning your authority is understanding what you can bring to the table, and then doing it best. It’s also about knowing the role you play on the team and identifying ways it can create broader growth. If you work in accounting, how can your knowledge contribute to other areas of the organization’s success?
- Work to make the future better. Put aside the to-do list for a moment. Look for something simple that could be improved, and think about realistic paths to improvement. Imagine sharing your ideas with your boss or others, and brainstorm all the questions or concerns that could come up. Think about your answers, let the ideas settle in your brain for a little longer, and then take the initiative to begin the conversation with your boss.
- Know when a change is best. There are times when organic leadership simply isn’t going to happen. Perhaps your boss lacks true vision or trust. Maybe your experience or education are not valued in your work setting. Consider that your personality may not be the right fit for the team. If you believe that you are ready to be at the leadership table and that opportunity doesn’t exist where you are, it’s time to move on.
Serving as an organic leader within an organization is empowering, challenging and deeply rewarding. What pitfalls have you seen on the road to organic leadership?