Young aspiring leaders often have one all-consuming goal: get promoted. It’s not hard to understand why. Promotions are a symbol of advancement, generally doled out when you’ve produced strong business results and have grown professionally. It’s validation that you’re valued at your place of work. Getting promoted is as close to an “A” as you can get in real life.
And yet salary and title changes aren’t enough for those whose actual objective is to be a leader. In fact, chasing the next promotion often results in an unfulfilling cycle of discontent, as the focus is always on ticking off the next box — getting to that next rung on the ladder.
So, let’s reframe the conversation: a promotion is one form of recognition, but it does not inherently make you a leader. Neither does being a manager. Or coming in early, getting facetime with the C-suite, crushing your KPIs, or having “lead” in your title. Many “leads” do not lead and many people without the title do. While promotional milestones can signify leadership, they don’t by default.
So, if all of these things do not a leader make, what does? How can you set yourself up for leadership success early in your career?
Glad you asked.
As a starting point, climb down off the ladder
One of the most common mistakes young employees make is methodically mapping out their climb to the top. The infamous career ladder plagues nearly every type of workplace, from structured corporate environments to the nebulous world of startups. One year in this role, followed by a promotion, a high-visibility project, added responsibility, another promotion, a senior title, a slew of direct reports, and — phew! — you’re on the “right” path.
But the truth is that success is not linear, and your career path is unlikely to be either. Admittedly, it’s not easy to see around the twists and turns when you’re just starting out, but there are some simple ways to adjust your mindset and get comfortable with the idea.
In her 2013 book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg encourages readers to consider our careers as a jungle gym, rather than a ladder.
Ladders are limiting. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.
To be clear, the message isn’t to reject ambition — in fact, a sense of purpose, resilience, and desire are essential to succeeding along a nonlinear path. Rather, this more realistic perspective gives you the freedom to find your own way up. When you take away the pressure of climbing the ladder, you give yourself room to experiment, explore, and develop both personally and professionally.
Most importantly, you open the door to leadership opportunities outside of simply getting a promotion.
Don’t accept the status quo
The best leaders ask good questions — of both themselves and others. They don’t do anything just because “it’s the way it’s always been done.” And they aren’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers to create change and move forward.
But many young professionals suffer from the stifling effects of imposter syndrome. Even those with heaps of confidence can find themselves in a meeting feeling insecure about their contributions, afraid to speak up.
To truly step into a leadership role, you have to be willing to speak your mind, push back, and ask tough questions. If the sound of that makes your palms sweat, fear not. You don’t need to be outspoken, loud, or “pushy” to share your ideas. You just need to be willing to get a little uncomfortable, at least at first.
One of the best ways to feel confident expressing your opinions or challenging ideas among colleagues in a meeting is to speak up early. Say something — anything — within the first five minutes, and you’re guaranteed to feel more comfortable when you have something impactful to add later. Depending on your comfort level, this could be anything from a comment about the weather to an opinion on an upcoming initiative. When you do speak up, be ready to back up your assertions, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t end up with the winning idea. It’s all part of the process.
As you build your own path to leadership, it’s also important to take a step back and challenge your own assumptions about yourself. Is that senior manager job really the role you want — from the day-to-day responsibilities to the impact on your lifestyle? Sometimes we get so focused on traditional signs of progress that we fail to think about what will truly fulfill us in our careers.
As you make a point to ask the tough questions of others, don’t forget to ask them of yourself, too.
When contemplating our own career paths, we naturally tend to focus inward:
“How can I become a leader on my team?”
“What opportunities exist for me at this company and beyond?”
“Where can I improve?”
“What do I want to be when I grow up?” (an especially tricky one!)
While these are all valid questions — and important ones to address (see above re: challenge yourself) — it’s important to get out of your own head, too. An insular mentality may be holding you back from showing your true leadership capabilities.
On a very basic level, being a leader is about your relation to other people within an organization. It’s impossible to lead while flying solo — your connection with your team defines you as a leader. So, a surefire way to develop and demonstrate your leadership skills is to stop thinking so much about what you need to do to get to that next step, and start thinking about how you can help others reach their potential.
In the same vein, an excessively competitive mindset can also hinder your growth as a leader. Of course, a little friendly rivalry among teammates can keep us on our toes and push us to produce better work. But true leaders will always choose what’s best for the team, not themselves, and they’ll never push another down to advance their own agenda. A 2017 study on competition in the workplace found that leaders can best use competition by encouraging team members to use their strengths “in a way that benefits others as well as themselves.”
You may not be a manager yet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to your team, including your peers, your boss, and even higher-level teammates. Mentor a new team member. Teach someone a skill you’re proud to have. Help out with a complex project, and don’t seek credit. Give constructive feedback to your manager about what she’s doing well and where you could use more support.
Look at the best leaders around you. Not necessarily upper management, but the people who you truly believe exemplify a strong mentor, manager, or teammate. What do they have in common?
They likely put a focus on others, rather than themselves.
Expose your blind side
If you want to get a head start on leadership, practice vulnerability. It pairs well with confidence, self-awareness, and sincerity.
Harvard Business Review explores what that means in the context of the workplace:
Vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing ‘professional distance and cool’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
For many, being vulnerable in a professional environment requires a certain level of trust and bravery. But when you let your guard down to show true authenticity — in other words, when you’re being yourself — you open the door for genuine human connection.
Good leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers, and they’re not afraid to address their weaknesses. Acknowledging and revealing your blind spots does not make you unfit or inept. It makes you human and accessible. Know when you need help, and ask for it. Own up to your mistakes, promptly and publicly.
In fact, even wildly successful tech founders aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know. In this refreshingly honest account of one early Zillow employee’s career path, he recounts his experience learning to be vulnerable:
The smartest people in the room are the ones asking the lionshare of the questions. They’re too focused on learning to fear what others think of them. They know asking questions (especially of the experts) is the single fastest way to learn, level up, and become experts themselves.
It may seem easier to ask “dumb” questions or call out your weaknesses and mistakes when you’ve already worked your way to the top of the jungle gym, but vulnerability — along with it’s close sibling curiosity — are powerful tools even for those early in their career. Get comfortable with it now, and you’ll be amazed at how your peers look to you as a leader.
Don’t wait for an invitation
Ready to motivate, inspire, and lead your teammates? Start now. Leadership exists in so many forms — and it doesn’t require a fancy title, a lofty pay raise, or even permission.
Don’t wait for someone to tell you when it’s time to be a leader. You have the tools you need to practice within your role right now. In fact, according to The Global Leadership Forecast 2018, getting an early start is vital to leadership success. Published by DDI, The Conference Board, and EY, this comprehensive study of leadership in the workplace found that self-confidence and motivation, more so than promotions, have the biggest impact on leadership success.
An early motivation to lead plays a significant role in a person’s decision to pursue a leadership position. Slightly more than three of four leaders surveyed had leadership ambitions early in their life or working careers.
The takeaway? If you want it, go get it. You’ll know you’re successful not based solely on a promotion — though one might follow as an added bonus — but by observing your relationship with those around you. When your teammates look to you for support, encouragement, guidance, and inspiration, you’re a leader.
So, take initiative. Ask questions and challenge conventional approaches. Be confident and open-minded at the same time. And as you zig-zag your way to the top of the jungle gym, turn around and pull someone up to join you — the journey is way more fun with company.