Leadership comes in many forms. You can lead people in the direction you’re going, point people in the right direction, spend most of your time leading, or be a leader-in-the-moment. There’s no one way to lead, but we certainly seem to only reward one way.
About 11 years ago, I was sitting in a conference room, waiting for a meeting to start. I was the first one in the room. Within a few minutes, the people attending trickled in. About 5 minutes after the meeting started, he walked in.
He said Hi, walked to the whiteboard, grabbed all the dry-erase markers, and sat down. The meeting continued. A few minutes later, he got up, walked slowly to the whiteboard, slowly uncapped a marker, and stood there.
Conversation dwindled to a murmur, then silence as all eyes were on him.
This was a team meeting, but now it was his meeting. He was leading it. He was in charge because he put himself in a position, literally, of authority that many of us are trained from a young age to listen to: the person by the board with the marker (or, in my case, back when we still used chalk).
At the time I thought, “What a total dick-move.” I observed this pattern of behavior for the rest of my time at that job. Whenever he came into the room, he grabbed all the markers, and as such, often had control of the room and had his vision listened to and bought-into the most.
After a while of observing this I thought, “Brilliant!” Still a dick-move, from my perspective, but he was decidedly seen as a leader in the organization.
You have to be seen, to be seen as a leader. But it isn’t the only way to lead.
A few months ago, someone asked my about my leadership style. Strangely, while I was at the whiteboard drawing and walking them through a past project I’d done.
My initial thought was that I don’t really have a leadership style. Because I was thinking in terms of “traditional” leadership. Perhaps “stereotypical” would be a better adjective. But, I took a moment and thought about it.
My leadership style is to lead from behind. I joke sometimes that I like to lead from behind just in case things go horribly, horribly wrong and I can be the first to retreat. I’m much more point-the-way than “everyone follow me!” As such, I am not seen as a leader, because I am not seen.
I like my style though. I like making space for others to shine. I like giving the floor, whether to speak or to draw, to others because I know great ideas come from many places. I like supporting the goals of people around me and helping them along the path to achieving them.
I feel a bit stuck though. I am a good leader, but because it isn’t leadership that’s as visible, I feel like I miss out on opportunities for promotion, or larger responsibility, or building out a team or practice (or both!), or, or, or.
I suspect there are a lot of people who are in a similar place as me. Perhaps a lot of you don’t want to be leaders in the stereotypical sense, but at the same time you’re very good at getting a team or coworker to work through a particularly sticky problem, or facilitating a difficult conversation to a positive outcome.
If that’s you, congrats, you’re a leader. I see you. Others see you. You likely won’t be tapped to become VP of All You Survey*, but you are moving things forward and making people’s lives better, even if it’s only in that one meeting that one time. Thank you.
Setting aside the stereotype, we all have varying degrees of leadership skills. It’s a skill. It has to be practiced. You get better with experience. You likely don’t come out of school ready to lead much of anything. That said, whether you are just starting your professional life, or you are cresting 30 years, it’s worth observing the people around you for all types of leadership styles.
Mostly because you can only get so far with someone who likes to hog all the dry-erase markers. Eventually, you have to leave the conference room and get stuff done.
*Call me if you have an open VP position for this. I mean, SVP.