Some say that leaders are born not made — I don’t agree. I’ve never seen babies lead teams before. Some people are more naturally able to assume a position of leadership. I’m definitely not one of those people. I was shy and introverted. I was voted 2nd most quiet 1st grader. See? I couldn’t even take the lead then. But despite not starting out with leadership qualities, I or anyone else, can become fit to be a leader or show leadership qualities.
This preconception that only leaders have leadership skills can contribute to feelings of never living up to expectations. That we are somehow ‘not enough’. This sounds an awful lot like Imposter Syndrome, doesn’t it?
I’ve always told people I’m not much of a leader. But my boss seems to think I am. So I went on a soul-searching trip. Is developing leadership skills important for someone who is not in a leadership role? Or someone who wants to be? Or more importantly, someone who doesn’t want to be?
Let me tell you a story: A year ago, I started a new job and my new boss scheduled a weekly pairing with me. This completely stressed me out, and not wanting to come empty-handed on the first of these pairing, I came up with a list of support tickets that I felt I made mistakes on or needed help with.
When I brought up my list, my boss promptly told me our pairing was my time. It was about me. Here was someone who is a leader of the whole support team and he was giving me the mic. I ended up telling him about my feelings of ‘not good enough’ and ‘the need to continuously be better’. In each subsequent pairing, I was starting to feel better about my knowledge and performance. I also started sharing actionable items that I thought of to address any concerns I had.
He would ask ‘innocent’ questions like ‘how did the outage go?’ and get my gears going on what went well and what could be improved. And then he charged me with implementing my ideas.
Recently, I realized what he had done was allow me to practice my leadership skills during those pairings. He provided opportunities for me to figure out things I could improve in myself and figure out solutions to strengthen those areas. He would ask ‘innocent’ questions like ‘how did the outage go?’ and get my gears going on what went well and what could be improved. And then he charged me with implementing my ideas. Before I know it, I had migrated our status page over to Statuspage.io and had a complete Pagerduty workflow.
He demonstrated great relationship building skills during these pairings. Mentoring me and helping me improve skills by guiding me instead of dictating what I should do. Innovating by managing our team in unique personally-tailored ways rather than codifying ‘one size fits all’ approach. He nurtured each of his members’ individual qualities. I started realizing that I actually do have some of these skills: Problem-solving, Situational Awareness, Communication and the thing my boss and I do during pairings and my personal favorite — Developing Leadership Skills. Yes. That’s a leadership skill too. How meta. Skill-ception, in fact.
So short story long (his favorite saying), he taught his team to be more like leaders (teach a person to fish) instead of just people who follow by rote (give a person a fish).
But what makes a leader a leader? Leadership traits? Leadership skills?
Yes! Both! Leadership traits are natural tendencies. And tendencies are just that, things you tend to do without thinking about it. Like being left-handed. On the other hand (no pun intended), leadership skills are things you have worked on and practiced. Some traits can be a skill and vice versa. But the main difference is with skills, you need conscious effort. It boils down to talent vs hard work. The tortoise and the hare. Rock Lee vs Sasuke (for those familiar with Naruto).
Mental stamina, Confidence, Emotional stability, Charisma, Empathy and Intuitiveness are some common leadership traits. While you definitely see some of these traits in leaders and good teammates, they aren’t very ‘actionable’ in your work-life. How does one level up their charisma? Improving intuitiveness is not very intuit, is it?
Now, why do we want to be a better teammate? Who cares what else does as long as we do our job? Sure, but actually, again — no. Better teamwork means a better work-life and a better work-life means a better life in general. Who doesn’t want that?
As I mentioned in my little life story, leadership skills aren’t just for leaders. How did leaders get good at these skills, anyway? They didn’t all start out as leaders, amirite? They started out as teammates. And became really, really good teammates. A ‘first among equals’, if you will. Arthur and his knights of the round table. And if we keep going in that direction, we can say that each team member can be a leader of their own, each accountable for their portion of the team’s knowledge as SME (subject matter experts). You can break it down further and say that each team consists of multiple teams of one and each team member is a leader. Makes sense, right? Good, now, let’s go fishing.
Leadership skills are actionable: you can develop them.
While leadership traits may be more innate, Leadership Skills can be developed with conscious effort and practice. These are the types of skills my boss was helping foster in each of us — these were the things he was teaching us how to fish for. And every one of these are qualities teammates value and crave in someone they work with and depend on. Here are leadership skills we can all develop to make us better teammates:
Making quick decisions with the information you have a good skill to have and is a sign of a good leader. And a good teammate. Not having to be told what to do in every situation allows your team leader and teammates to be able to depend on you.
Trustworthiness/Integrity is being truthful or honesty or having a strong set of values that you really stand by. A teammate who is trustworthy is someone that can bring a team together and work out situations that can otherwise lead to misunderstanding.
Relationship building (or team building)
Leadership requires the ability to build and maintain a strong and collaborative team of individuals working toward the same goal. It is a leader’s role to encourage healthy working relationships between team members, clients, producers, other managers and the community at large. When employees trust each other and the business as a whole, the entire organization stands to benefit significantly.
Basically, keep calm and create a step-by-step solution (this should be a t-shirt). Problem-solving skills a teammate create a plan of action with their team and external teams alike that helps keep projects on track or a particular situation under control.
Ability to teach and mentor
Effectively teaching colleagues or direct reports how to grow in their careers helps your team scale. It requires your to think less about yourself and more about how to help your teammates and team as a whole be successful.
Communicating means you are able to help teammates understand what you currently situation is, whether you need help or can offer to help. Communication can help surface places of improvement that otherwise could be overlooked.
Another important skill is the ability to keep moving forward after a bad situation. Identifying ones own weaknesses and strengths without letting ego get in the way. And doing the same for others.
To be creative and recognize when changes could improve the workflow. Similar to problem-solving, an innovative person can come up with new and effective ways of doing things. Where problem-solving is in response to a problem, innovation does not need to be.
Developing Leadership Skills
While some do undoubtedly contain a certain ability to connect with and inspire others without trying, leadership skills can also be nurtured and developed. Think ‘tortoise and the hare’.
Bottom line is that Leadership Skills are the tools that you forge to help you become a better teammate. And an overall better version of yourself. You likely already have some of these leadership skills. Not everyone will be the Michael Jordan of their team and they shouldn’t need to be. We can be Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman or any number of other great non-Jordan players. And you never know — you might get asked to be a team lead before you know it. I happened to me. I still I hope this inspires you, the reader, to strive for leadership in the near or far future, in the role you are in now or another down the road. More importantly, to strive to become … a better teammate.
Dennis Padiernos is a Support Engineer at Netlify. He’s worked in Support for more than 10 years. When not working, he likes to code, make mechanical keyboards and play the piano, guitar or violin. He also loves to help people.