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How to be a leader when you’re not the boss

Well-developed leadership skills can facilitate success in all aspects of life, none more so than the workforce. With research showing that workers of the future are likely to have five careers and 17 jobs, future-proofing your career is becoming more important than ever. Leadership is one of the key ‘soft skills’ or ‘people skills’ that’s vital to develop.

Long gone are the days of a ‘job for life’, says Deakin University Senior Lecturer Dr Amanda Allisey. She teaches MBA people management and leadership at Deakin Business School, and her message is clear: today’s workplace landscape has evolved immensely. Working from home, agile working – these are all shaping a new era of Australian, and global, enterprise. And with change in the way we work, comes a change in how we need to work.

According to Dr Allisey, there has never before been a time when leadership skills have played such a vital role in supporting employees to successfully navigate and achieve career goals in today’s employment landscape.

‘Leadership skills are becoming more and more important as we move towards more flexible workplaces,’ Dr Allisey says. ‘Strong people skills will play a significant role in differentiating one job applicant from another in a competitive marketplace. Being able to demonstrate leadership skills, even if you’re not in a senior role, can make you more attractive to future employers,’ she says.

While Dr Allisey believes there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to defining a leader, she shares her thoughts on some of leadership’s universal characteristics, and how to develop them at any stage of your career.

Understand what successful leadership looks like

‘Leadership, and what constitutes successful leadership, is a hotly contested topic,’ Dr Allisey says. ‘Theories have differed and evolved over decades. Once upon a time gender, i.e. simply being male, was considered a leadership characteristic. Thankfully, leadership today is more inclusive.’

Fundamentally, Dr Allisey says there are two attributes that support leadership success: emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

‘People who have a strong understanding of their own behaviour, are able to influence others and are resilient when pursuing goals are well on their way to demonstrating strong leadership,’ Dr Allisey says. She highlights that successful leaders are able to:

  • listen to, and understand other people’s point of view
  • work collaboratively
  • show genuine empathy towards their workmates
  • manage ambiguity/be adaptable across complex or volatile situations.

‘Leadership comes down to relationships. Being able to lead in an authentic way builds trust. One person’s leader is not necessarily another person’s leader, but being authentic and genuine is at the heart of earning respect and these are characteristics of successful leaders.’

'People who have a strong understanding of their own behaviour, are able to influence others and are resilient when pursuing goals are well on their way to demonstrating strong leadership.'

Dr Amanda Allisey,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Consider the role of leadership

When we think of great leaders, we often think of them on a grand scale – historical, political or social leaders like John F. Kennedy, Julius Caesar or Martin Luther King. There’s no doubting they all undertook their roles with passion and charisma and united their followers, but when applying skills to the workplace, Dr Allisey believes successful leaders all have one thing in common.

‘Leadership is all about creating the conditions for people to flourish,’ Dr Allisey says. ‘The biggest impact a leader can have is to create a workplace environment that values achievement and individual creativity. This includes creating a psychologically safe environment where people can make mistakes, take responsibility for them, learn from them and move on without fear of punitive consequences.’

Strive to lead, even if you’re not the boss

Leadership skills are always relevant, says Dr Allisey, even if you are not the ‘boss’. To work on your leadership skills, consider the following:

  1. Be a positive influencer with emotional maturity – this can extend beyond the workplace to sport, university and home life.
  2. Seek, and be open to, feedback – we can’t improve as people unless we take on board feedback – positive and constructive. All of us have blind spots and being able to accept faults is a sign of being a fully-evolved human being.
  3. Seek new opportunities – putting yourself ‘out there’ may be momentarily scary, but we all grow from taking on new challenges.
  4. Develop resilience to continue on your journey.

Be adaptable in your leadership style

As workplaces become more flexible, leaders need to ensure they remain adaptable to build the environment in which their co-workers will thrive and achieve. Dr Allisey sees well-developed leadership skills as helping employees ‘future-proof’ their careers.

‘As workers choose to change career more often than their predecessors, they will require a broader skill set to help them transition. By developing soft skills, or people skills such as leadership, employees are better positioned to take control of their own success and progress their careers into management positions,’ Dr Allisey says.

Do your leadership skills need a boost? Postgraduate study can help – check out your study options at Deakin.

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Dr Amanda Allisey
Dr Amanda Allisey

Dr Amanda Allisey, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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