A young leader in the board room

Titles are funny things. They give a certain impression around the holder. Call yourself a barber, and most people will believe that you can cut hair. If you can’t, business longevity may be an issue. But for a time, people will accept that you’re a barber. That’s your title, so that’s what people expect from you.

It’s the same in the workplace: if you’re an IT Guru, you fix IT issues — all IT issues. If you’re the HR Manager, you get to solve all those people issues. But what about being a leader? Is a leader a title, a label or something more?

Who gets to be a leader?

CEOs are definitely considered leaders, and we hope they are. We assume the same applies to the senior executives and managers. But often there seems to be a threshold for the title ‘leader’, and those at the lower levels of an organisation might hesitate to attach the descriptor ‘leader’ to their role, thinking ‘it’s what my manager does’ or ‘I don’t have that authority’.

Most of us would agree, in theory at least, that everyone can in some way be a leader. The big question is how do you make leaders and leadership happen, and be legitimized, at all levels of a business or organisation?

It starts with culture. Leadership is a lot of things, but successful, shared, participatory leadership at all levels of an organisation is a cultural trait. And it’s a trait that Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report found was one of the most pressing needs for 21st Century workforces. The military has for hundreds of years instilled leadership at all levels. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter your title, you’re expected to show leadership when necessary. So here are five tips on growing leadership at all levels.

One: Legitimize the leadership component at all levels

Some people will take up leadership opportunities and run with them, but for others they need to be given a ‘title’ or ‘label’ before they step up. Want proof? Hand out the apron and tongs at your next BBQ and watch the inner chef rise to the occasion. Same goes in your company. Give your people an explicit responsibility to lead, and they should rise to the task.

Two: Make leadership an activity

In general terms, leadership is performative: it’s about what people do. It’s about values-in-action. Role models are helpful in showing people what good leadership looks like. Also delegating responsibility, even for less critical tasks, allows people to begin to flex their leadership muscle.

Three: Give people options

Leadership can be daunting, so allow your people to explore being leaders. Within every role, task and action there is a chance to lead, so give people the chance to try different ways to lead. Allow your managers and team members — through training, coaching, mentoring and discussion — to explore what leadership works for them and their team.

Four: Make leadership something people aspire to

Acknowledging and celebrating leadership as something to aspire to is a key driver in making the craft of leadership a cultural norm. There is a very good reason that a certain Scottish-esque fast food empire encourages its managers to dream of becoming franchisees: it is a powerful motivator to take on responsibility and to lead.

Five: Recognise that leadership is achieved with and through others

Leadership is a people activity. It’s about achieving with and because of others, so be gracious with praise and the recognition of success and celebrate good leadership at all levels.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Sir Isaac Newton, 1675.

Organisations flourish when leadership is practised at all levels. Be careful not to lock up leadership in the C-Suite, and instead, give your people the support and guidance to lead wherever they are in the company. In this way you’ll build your organisational leadership capability, as well as strengthen your leadership culture.