How to Lead from Where You Are

Don’t ask permission to be a leader in the modern work world—just do it

By Christina Folz Oct 6, 2017
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PHOENIX—If you believe leaders must be outgoing, success-driven and positioned at the top of the corporate ladder, it's time to update your thinking. Today's leaders are often reserved, energized by failure, and have roles all over the organizational chart, including at the bottom. While they are powerful, their strength and influence come from the inside out, not the other way around.

"[We live] in a world where traditional authority has less and less currency, where prescribed roles are less and less relevant," said Polly LaBarre, founding member of Fast Company magazine. Technological advances and demographic changes have accelerated the speed of business to the point where bureaucratic top-down leadership models no longer work very well.

Even so, "the vast majority of people still labor under the dead hand of business as usual," said LaBarre, who delivered a keynote speech at the recent SHRM 2017 Leadership Development Forum.

The good news—and a key takeaway from the conference—is that opportunities to lead are available to anyone willing to step up and take them, including HR. "We have got to get around this bias in business that says big change comes from big leaders," LaBarre said. "The most world-changing innovation often starts very small." Below is some advice on how to effect change as a 21st century HR leader.

Let failure fuel you. 

At nearly every session and keynote, the same paradoxical message emerged: To succeed as a leader, you must embrace failure. "Innovation is a numbers game," LaBarre said. "The pace at which your organization [moves forward] is a function of how many options you can generate, how many experiments you can run." And experiments, by their very nature, sometimes end in flops and failures.

"For every Amazon web service that is eating the world, you're going to have an [unsuccessful] Amazon Fire phone," LaBarre said. In fact, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself described his company as the "best place in the world to fail. Have you ever heard a CEO brag that failure is its core competence?" she asked.

Entrepreneur Sarah Robb O'Hagan, who spoke at the closing general session, counted getting fired from her role as director of marketing at Virgin Atlantic as one of the best things that happened to her career, because the experience shaped how she approached her dream job—with Nike—when it finally came along. "My failures taught me the humility that was deeply needed to succeed in the right environment," said the author of Extreme You (HarperBusiness, 2017) and CEO of Flywheel Sports in New York City.

(Check out her LinkedIn profile for a lesson in communicating about one's professional failures with transparency and grace. Of her time at Virgin Atlantic, she writes: "… I was fired after one year for being too cocky, unwilling to ask for help, out of my depth and ineffective.")

Embrace who you are, and lead from there. 

The idea that leaders are all cut from the same cloth—namely, type-A extroverts—is old-school and wrong. Instead, "we do our best when we lean straight into the people we are," Robb O'Hagan said.

Self-knowledge is critical to enlightened leadership. One of the biggest mistakes introverted leaders make is attempting to be people they're not, said speaker Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of Quiet Influence: The Introvert's Guide to Making a Difference (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013)."You have to stop trying to be an extrovert [if you're an introvert]," she said. "You need to leverage the strengths you already have," which include listening well, being thoughtful in your work, and cultivating robust one-on-one relationships.

And don't get hung up on titles, which matter far less than they used to. In her session "How to Lead and Influence When You Think You Have No Power," consultant Natasha Bowman advised HR to use three strategies to lead change: collect data to build strong logical arguments, tap into people's emotions by focusing on what they care about, and use a collaborative approach to build consensus.

Don't wait until you're looking for a win to try to be a team player. "You want to start early," said Bowman, founder of the coaching firm Performance Renew. "Whenever I get started at a new organization, I make it my business to determine who the key players are." She then reaches out and asks to get on their calendar. "Most people love to talk about themselves, so they'll make it happen."

Think differently—and find partners differently. 

Question everything. "Questions are a powerful antidote to hubris," LaBarre said. "Someone who goes around opened up by questions will get more perspectives than someone closed down by certainty." Ask yourself and others: What if we threw out the rule book? If you had my job, what would you do? What if we did the exact opposite?

Then find people who challenge you. "Partner with those least like you," Robb O'Hagan advised. "We talk a lot about diversity, but we don't talk enough about what that means for us as individuals." For example, Robb O'Hagan, a buoyant extrovert, said she always does her best work when collaborating with introverts.

Moreover, studies show that having so-called "devil's advocates" who question the status quo on teams sparks creativity and innovation, said Stacy Kesten, a consultant for Integrated Leadership Systems who spoke about managing conflict.

Take the first step. 

Most importantly, if there's something you want, speak up and take initiative. "You will get a whole lot of respect … when you are the one who makes that first move," Bowman said, even if your proposal isn't accepted. "Be that person who people have reverence for."

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