When I say “Leadership is a choice, not a position”, what I am referring to is simple. Just because you have the title or a position of a leader, that does not make you a leader. You need to make a conscious choice to be a leader and consequently take on all the perks, responsibilities and headaches that come along with it. If you do not, you are just a person with a title and nothing more. This may sound a bit harsh, but read on – it is actually freeing and refreshing.
It’s Always Your Choice
First and foremost, I want to dispel any notion that leadership is not a choice. There are those who say that leadership was “thrust upon them” or “they had to take charge”. Either they are being humble and modest, or they are mistaken. I can recall taking on leadership roles and obtaining leadership positions, and when I reflect on these opportunities, it was always my choice. Every time, I could have just said “no” and walked away. Even in dire situations where lives are on the line, people are not forced to take charge. They can simply take on the “every person for themselves” mindset and think only of their own safety, or just do nothing and suffer the consequences. Or, they can decide to take charge and do something to better themselves and those around them. Either way, it is a choice.
Another thing to consider is just because someone has the term “leader” in their title, it does not mean they actually are a leader. There are three aspects to being a leader: influence, responsibility and mentoring/coaching others. To be a leader, a person must be willing to accept all three aspects of leadership. I say “accept” because although you do take on extra responsibilities when you become a leader, influencing others and mentoring/coaching others come with time and experience.
The Power You Wield
It is empowering to know that as a member of a team, you can choose to take on new responsibilities and contribute in a way that you have not done so in the past. It is exciting to know that even if you are not in a leadership position, you can still take on responsibilities that put you in a leadership role which supports your team and your leader. After all, leadership is a choice, not a position. In such a role, even without a fancy title, you can still influence others and make a difference in your organization.
When I worked as a frontline staff member on a team that ran a youth care group home, I made a decision to help my boss supervise the volunteer workers. I was trained in this job by another member of the team who did it before me. He became my mentor and over time our combined contribution made a difference in the organization and helped run the team, only because we decided to step up. Our roles didn’t have a title or an official sounding name attached to them, but we were definitely leaders. After all, leadership is a choice, not a position.
Why am I emphasizing choice? It is simple: when someone realizes they have choice, they also realize they are in control and are responsible for what they do.
How to Take on a Leadership Role
Let’s talk about how you can take on a leadership role even if you are not in a leadership position. First and foremost, you must want to be a leader. It does not matter how many people tell you that you would be a good leader or how many times your supervisor asks you to lead a team project. If you do not desire the responsibilities of a leader (e.g. more responsibility, positive influence over others and the opportunity to coach or mentor others), do not say “yes” to a leadership role. It takes courage to say “no” if you know that being a leader at this time is not for you, but if you do not feel ready or have no desire for the extra responsibility, it’s okay to stay where you are.
If – on the other hand – you are ready for and want the challenge, look for leadership opportunities immediately around you. Make yourself available to your supervisor and let him or her know you desire some leadership responsibilities. Maybe you can help with scheduling, re-organizing the stock room or developing a more visually appealing menu for the restaurant you work in. Most leaders will relish the opportunity to delegate some of their tasks to their team. And, if your leader doesn’t have anything for you at the moment, do not be pushy or aggressive on wanting to take on something. Just thank them and let them know that you are available and will come back to ask again in a couple days to see if anything has come up.
Now, let’s break this down into a an action list to help you move forward:
- Learn to follow. You need to be a good follower before you can lead. Good followers are worth their weight in gold to bosses and supervisors. You will rely on such followers in the future, so make sure you do your part now and learn all you can before you step up.
- Decide to be a leader for the right reasons. You know your desire to be a leader is correct when you are ready to take on more responsibilities, you want to positively influence others and are willing to mentor and coach your peers and eventually subordinates.
- Look for leadership opportunities. Perhaps you are a strong organizer and your boss has mentioned that the office could use a facelift. Perhaps one of your supervisors needs someone for money collection or to organize an event. When in doubt, ask if there is anything you can do to help.
- If you cannot find an opportunity to take on a leadership role, create one. Perhaps the team schedule works well but there is still room for improvement. Perhaps you see something that could use your touch. Again, talk to your boss. Gently suggest things. See if you can help.
- If your boss says “no“, take this as “not at this time”. Let your boss know that you will check back with him or her in a few days to see if they have thought of anything new.
- Remember, do not be pushy or aggressive.
The steps outlined above will aid you in taking on a leadership role and even a leadership position. If your boss sees that you are good at leading tasks, you show a genuine interest to help the team and a position comes up in the organization, you are more likely to be recommended for that position than someone who does not show initiative. And once you are a leader, you may have some extra stress, a sleepless night or two and may need to work on additional skills. That’s fine. At the end of the day, you can take solace in knowing that leadership is a choice, not a position.
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