Leadership – How to Lead as an Individual Contributor

Throughout the talent management process and general discussions about “should we promote Sarah,” the question of leadership always comes up. It can seem somewhat futile when you are in an individual contributor role (aka – not managing other people), but your overall leadership skills and capabilities can shine even brighter when you are not managing people.

Let me reframe it for you – you know the manager you have who seems awful as a people leader? He doesn’t understand how to talk to others, get work done, or play well in the sandbox? At some point he showed talent or potential as a leader. He knew how to stand in front of the pack and get others to work with him, not against him. He stepped up to the plate, mentored others, and had a knowledge base relevant to the needs of the business. That’s how he got to where he is – before you throw in all of the politics and paperwork that comes with being responsible for others’ careers, he exuded leadership qualities.

Being a Leader without Managing People

Leadership has been defined thousands of different ways – there’s an entire business book section about the topic. In fact, even the dictionary’s definition of: “a person who guides or directs a group,” doesn’t seem sufficient. But for Human Resources professionals, the potential of leadership is one of the most important determining factors in identifying talent.

Having people follow you, is only a small part of what leadership means in the workplace. In fact, I know many amazing leaders who loathe being a people manager – they are two separate muscles for most people. Leadership is about you – how you conduct yourself, how you view yourself, how others perceive you, and the value you deliver to the business. Not just results, but the softer skills too.

You can lead through mentoring others; by taking risks; by being an individual; through stepping “outside of the box.” There is not one path to leadership, but it’s a choice you make as an employee – to be a leader, or be content following – and both options are ok, depending upon who you are and where you are, in your career.

But if you want to be seen as a leader, here are the qualities and questions HR uses to help your manager determine if you are a LEADER.

  • Do you show the aptitude to set the vision and strategy? Are you solutions-oriented when problems arise? Are you able to see the 30,000 foot view of where the business is going and how to help your team get there?
  • Do you have a backbone? Or better yet, are you able to put your personal feelings and opinions aside to make difficult decisions that impact the business (or your colleagues)? Can you act on behalf of what’s best for the business, not best for you?
  • Are you inspiring others? Not, are you managing others, but are you someone that your colleagues feel inspired by or want to achieve next to you? Do you have their respect? Do you motivate them to deliver? Do people want to be on your team/associated with you?
  • Do you share your knowledge and talent with others? Being a superstar is one thing, but are you open and collaborative with your skills? Do you make an effort to bring others up to your knowledge-level and share best practices with them to make their lives easier?
  • Are you knowledgeable about the business itself – outside of your department, do you truly understand what’s going on and how the business works? Can you determine how your actions impact customers, sales, another department, and your team?
  • Are you a communicator? Do you get back to people in a timely manner? Do you share updates and make sure key stakeholders are involved with what’s going on?
  • Do you deliver results? When you complete something, is it top-notch quality, on-time, and relevant? Are you a driver? Do you push others to achieve their own results, or are you a bottleneck or an excuse machine?

These qualities sound surface-level, and many leadership “gurus” would be concerned that these are “the questions” that you need to satisfy. But, it takes many years to create these skills and exude them as competencies. Leadership takes practice, falling short of expectations, navigating around roadblocks, building relationships, taking risks, and being the person you would want to follow. Not an easy task – but one you should start working on, even if you don’t lead a flock of employees.