What is a leader?
Buffy Van Brocklin was a customer service representative at a manufacturing firm. Buffy answered phones, entered customer orders, helped with technical product questions, and was a “go to” guy, both within the organization, and outside the walls with customers and vendors. I don’t know how he got the nickname, Buffy, but he was affectionately referred to as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I never saw a problem that Buffy couldn’t solve. His tools were patience, some technical prowess, an unquestioned work ethic, and a passion for helping people. While I’m sure it was not anyone’s plan, Buffy’s daily habits created a “can do” culture within his company, and that culture remains in place today… several years after his retirement.
Buffy wasn’t anybody’s boss, in fact, being a manager was never something he aspired to. Buff (for short) was content to do a great job, and help his co-workers and customers do the same. And while he was not technically a manager, Buffy’s presence was critical to the mission of the company. Almost all his human interaction was over the phone, and yet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “the face” of his company.
That’s a leader.
Definitions for leaders and leadership vary from resource to resource. I’ll offer up my simple description:
A leader is someone who gets things done.
At work, at school, at home, and in our communities, a leader sees a need, and fills the need. It's that simple. Not everyone aspires to have a title, not everyone has the need to be a boss. But I believe most of us want to contribute in a positive way, make a difference, and be appreciated for our efforts.
So here are a few things Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and others, have taught me about leadership on my professional journey. A lot of it comes down to good intentions, self-awareness, and some good old common sense. It also helps to have a good leader or mentor to model those leadership traits.
1) Be Reliable
Show up every day, on time, and ready to work. This “common sense” habit is not just noticed by your managers, it’s noticed by your co-workers as well. Being a reliable teammate is one of the first steps in leadership recognition. The best ability is availability. Be there.
2) Be Flexible
There should never be a job, that’s “not my job”. If you can do it, do it.
I worked for a gentleman who owned an industrial supply company that did $50 million in annual sales. Simply put, he was rich! I came back to the office late one night, and he was emptying the office wastebaskets. When I jokingly asked if he had been demoted by his business partner (his wife), he laughed and told me that when they started the business, they knew the key to being successful was to “never be too important to take out the trash.” The cleaning staff had an emergency and couldn’t make it in that evening, and he did what had to be done. This was such a great lesson for me as a young professional – both in flexibility and humility.
3) Become an Expert
Know the job. Know the mission. Know what the end result is supposed to look like. You may have responsibility for a small part of a bigger project, but whenever it’s possible, know the whole project. Becoming an expert shows interest and initiative. Being an expert makes you someone that others can turn to for help. Showing interest in the bigger picture creates value. Expertise is always valued.
4) Share the credit… own the blame
This is sometimes a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what great leaders do. In the professional world, we rarely win completely on our own. Whatever the end result is supposed to look like; a workspace realignment, a new product design, a World Series championship…the program analyst, the engineer, or the closing pitcher did not win it on their own. Good leaders will always acknowledge the team before themselves. This is always true.
But sometimes you don’t win, you don’t get the deal, or the project fails to meet its expectations and it may have had nothing to do with your efforts. Good leaders own that blame, and never “point fingers.” This is always true. (And it’s always tough!)
5) A good leader praises publicly and loudly, but critiques and corrects quietly and privately.
On this point, we could substitute the word, “leader” with “person.” Find a way to make somebody feel good about who they are, and what they are doing, and bring it to other people’s attention. A good organization has no unsung heroes!
However, if something (or someone) needs improvement, or an all-out change of direction, remember to do it privately and with as much compassion as possible. This point applies anywhere in an organization’s hierarchy. If you take nothing else from this article, take point #5 and the understanding that everybody is entitled to their dignity.
6) Show Passion
Being reliable, and showing up are important, but showing up is just a part of the leadership recipe. Being an expert at your craft, and at the team’s mission is also important. But being passionate about being there is vital to your success as a leader. Passion is infectious (but in a good way!!), it’s how you affect and improve a culture. And while I don’t know everything about anything, I do know this: If you can’t be passionate about what you’re doing during the 8 or more hours of your workday (1/2 of your waking life!), then for your own sake, do something else. Be your own leader. Make passion your personal brand.
Leaders come in lots of different and diverse packages, and many of those packages are not accompanied by a title. You don’t have to be “Division Manager” or “VP of Marketing” to be a leader, you just need to care about what’s going on and show that attitude and passion to others. You could be a supply clerk, you could be a regional sales rep, you could be a dude named Buffy the Vampire Slayer…You DON’T have to be a “boss” to be a leader!
Ask a mentor:
At your next mentoring meeting, share with your mentor your definition of leadership and ask them what skills, qualities and attitudes make a difference. Some questions you might ask:
- What is your definition of leadership?
- Do you have an example of someone who was a natural leader? What most struck you about them?
- Are there areas where you see a need for leadership at all levels in your environment?
- What does it take to become recognized as a leader in your field?