Maximising leadership potential

It’s never too early to develop leadership skills which will help you move up the career ladder later in life. Holding a position of responsibility in a university team, club or society can provide one of the best learning opportunities to do this.

Rosie Bailey, co-founder and director of learning and development consultancy OnTrack International, reckons such roles provide a first-hand basic grounding in some essential leadership qualities and skills around courage, initiative, responsibility and people.

“The captain will often have to make difficult decisions on behalf of their team,” she says. “They must take responsibility for their decisions and have to deal with the disappointment if they suffer defeat.”

Having secured such a position of power though, it is important to approach it in the right way if you are to maximise your leadership potential.

Appreciate what being a leader entails

While you may only be heading up a university club or society rather than a global corporation, it is still important that you fully understand what it means to be a leader and take your newfound responsibilities seriously.

Your role is to guide, inspire and motivate people in order that the team can work together cohesively and achieve successful outcomes. Be mindful that your behaviour and actions will have an impact on other people. It is not a licence to bully or impose your will and decisions on other people. Good leaders listen to team members and coax and guide towards their vision rather than railroad people into doing what they want. And while leadership is not a popularity contest, it is important to earn the team’s respect and trust so that they follow you. Also take the time and trouble to get to know your team members so you understand what motivates them.

“You will need to be able to work with different types of people in the team,” says Bailey. “Communicate with them in a way which produces results and realise how to get the very best from them, creating not just ‘followship’ but also other potential leaders and captains.”

Leverage your learning

Accept that you won’t get everything right in your first position as leader but it’s essential to make sure you do learn from your mistakes. If the team suffers a defeat, performs badly or something goes wrong internally, analyse why and determine whether there is a correlation between your actions and behaviour.

If the fault lies with individuals in the team, avoid apportioning blame but talk through how things can be improved. Also, don’t be afraid to elicit feedback from the team on what they think of your performance as a leader and treat any negative comments as constructive criticism. Don’t be hard on yourself though as this is a learning experience and no one expects you to be the finished article. Keep a log of what you have learned from different experiences and situations.

One way to accelerate your progress as a leader is to seek out an older and wiser mentor suggests Bailey. This could be a lecturer or someone outside university who has leadership experience such as a family friend.

“You should be receptive and listen and learn from what more experienced people may tell you, which is sometimes difficult for the young person,” she says.

Extracurricular activity

Anyone wishing to take their knowledge of leadership a step further should make an effort to read about great leaders and better understand why they are successful.

“Think about how you could emulate some of the things that they do well,” says Bailey. “Read business books and those written by great leaders. Talk to people who you know have positions of responsibility, learn from them, and talk to them about how they deal with challenging situations.”

In addition to biographies and leadership books, there is a wealth of free information available on the Internet. Check out the websites of learning and development companies and leadership and management organisations which feature articles on latest thinking.

As Bailey points out though, there is no substitute for real experience so continue to seek out opportunities where you can develop your leadership potential.

“Most employers now are not only looking at qualifications but want ‘evidence’ of your abilities,” she explains. “Transfer abilities you have developed in your early life into a skill which can be utilised and implemented into your business life – your life as a leader.”

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