The world is full of leaders. Some are easy to identify; they may hold political office, run successful businesses, minister at churches, command troops, or quarterback their teams to victory. Surprisingly, however, these highly visible leaders are but a tiny fraction of the women and men who lead. The vast majority of leaders are leading without title or wide-spread popularity.
In fact, title and popularity are not reliable indicators of effective leadership. This is because leadership is a skill and, like any skill, improves over time with practice–or withers without it. Everyone, regardless of title, has the ability to grow as a leader if they choose to practice the skill consistently over time. But sometimes we lose the choice to practice.
Losing the Leadership Path
It can be difficult to practice leadership consistently when dealing with unexpected life events. This is especially true for individuals who mainly exercise leadership through their profession. Changing jobs, unemployment, starting families, illness, or the death of a loved one can all suddenly and swiftly interrupt the practice of leadership.
A few days or weeks of not practicing leadership is harmless; however, when weeks become months, the effects become more apparent. Confidence levels decrease, decisiveness weakens, and work knowledge may slip. This can all lead to confusion and negative outcomes. For those already in a leadership role, this could even mean losing their position.
Reignite Your Leadership Skills
The negative effects of failing to practice leadership are not character defects. Confidence, decisiveness, knowledge, and clarity will all increase upon returning to practice. The problem for many, though, is that they don’t know how to begin practicing leadership again. This is especially true for someone who has lost a leadership position or taken an extended leave of absence.
Getting back on the leadership path is not always easy, and it’s not something achieved overnight. It requires disciplined action and an open mind. The goal should be to get back into the practice of setting and achieving goals, teaching and learning from peers, and experiencing success. And rather than making a snap decision to jump back into a leadership role, it’s helpful to first consider what opportunities currently exist.
Finding The Right Leadership Opportunity
To begin practicing leadership after a long hiatus, the first step is to find the right leadership opportunity. Since this might be outside a chosen profession, the opportunity could be *gasp* uncompensated. However, by taking the perspective that the end (improved leadership skills) is worth the means (uncompensated work), motivation and progress can be maintained.
Often times there are leadership opportunities at our churches, our child’s school or sports leagues, or at our favorite non-profits. When an open leadership role exists where we already spend time, taking on the role becomes easier, and the expectations are clearer. Here are a few areas where leaders can grow their skills outside their primary profession.
Volunteering often involves manual, monotonous tasks. In fact, many institutions need volunteers to free up the time of full-time professionals so that they can focus on more strategic, value-added tasks. But even the most mundane volunteer role can offer an opportunity to practice leadership skills.
For instance, leaders often look for ways to improve outcomes by optimizing processes. So when a volunteer role is tied to an inefficient process, suggesting process improvements to the volunteer leader can be helpful. This could help the organization become more efficient and, ultimately, more successful.
Part-time jobs that may not offer a career path or much prestige, can provide structure and valuable challenges. Professional titles help orient an organization’s employees and customers, but these titles are not the only sources of leadership. Those in part-time roles can lead too.
Just as a volunteer can suggest improvements, so too can a part-time employee. Furthermore, a part-time employee will have enough experience and knowledge of an organization to provide ideas for improving work culture, hiring, and training. If the fit is right, a part-time employee might have an interest and opportunity to move into a full-time leadership role.
For those looking to practice leadership on a flexible schedule and with compensation, contract work might be the right leadership opportunity. Of course, this often requires that the individual has a specific skill set to offer a client. Contracts usually arise because an organization lacks the internal expertise or bandwidth to complete a project.
One of the benefits of working as a contractor is that you are given ownership of a project and a degree of autonomy in its completion. Successful contract work can lead to full-time employment with the contracting organization or help build an impressive resume that highlights leadership qualities such as adaptability.
One of the best ways to practice leadership is by sharing what we know. It’s not uncommon for leaders to undervalue their past experiences as they look ahead to new opportunities and challenges. However, it’s likely that there is someone one out there–an aspiring leader, perhaps–who could learn from those experiences.
Mentoring is a form of leadership that takes place on a one-to-one basis. This is ideal for those looking to get back on the leadership path because it removes the complexity of leading multiple personalities, skill sets, and needs. Additionally, the mentor-mentee relationship creates a tighter feedback loop, which can help accelerate the practice of leadership for both.
Again, leadership is a skill that must be practiced. It cannot live by itself in thoughts and good intentions, or in title and popularity; it must be put into action. After deciding which leadership opportunity to pursue, the next step is simple: act.
Leadership in action is proactively securing the opportunity, learning the expectations, setting goals, and organizing resources to execute and succeed. Depending on the leadership opportunity, the impact of the work will vary; however, the main concern should be the effective practice of leadership toward ultimate success. With each instance of leadership practice and success, momentum will build and reignite dormant leadership skills.