You’re a Leader! Now What?

smiling woman in glasses leading team meeting

Have you ever had someone say, “Well, now that you’re the leader, what do you want us to do?” Maybe it was a surprise and you found yourself wondering, How did this happen?

I remember the first time I was tapped as a leader. I was a new nursing graduate in my first job. Even though I had taken all the team leadership courses as a student, I looked forward to being mentored by an experienced nurse during my first few months of work. Several weeks into the job, I arrived to begin my shift only to learn I was the only RN on duty and therefore the leader of the team!

I still remember the feeling of panic as I faced the team and the sense of relief at the end of the night when we had successfully cared for our patients.

That was the beginning of a lifetime of leadership experiences, both planned and unplanned, in nursing and beyond.

Leadership is defined in a variety of ways. Author John Maxwell, long recognized as an expert on this subject, wrote extensively on the qualities of leadership in his book Developing the Leader within You. Maxwell offered the best definition of leadership I’ve read: “Leadership is influence.”

Leading people is a challenge every day, but when we understand the enormous opportunity we have for influencing others, we should seek to lead at the highest level possible.

And when faced with critical times of transition, the need is even greater. In a day of corporate buyouts and mergers, leadership at the top can be gone on a day’s notice. How you lead your team during transition can determine its success or failure and, ultimately, that of the organization as well. What are ways you can lead well?

Empower Others

Maxwell said, “A leader is great, not because of his or her power, but because of his or her ability to empower others.” The focus of leadership should be on empowering those you lead to be the best they can be. Leadership is not about a title, a position, or rank. It is about helping shape the people following you in your everyday work and personal life. It’s about recognizing you have within you the ability to influence others for good as you lead them to accomplish a common goal. Part of empowering them is offering praise for their efforts, quickly giving credit where credit is due no matter their role on the team.

My first night as a team leader we shared a common goal: give the very best care to our patients and do no harm. As much panic as I felt, can you imagine how my team felt with a 20-year-old, inexperienced nurse as its leader?

I had to present a confident attitude in what we could do together by pooling our knowledge and experience, not what I could do alone as the leader.

And it worked! We all left that night feeling good about the outcome.

Attract Followers

Leadership at its best attracts devoted followers. One of my favorite cartoons depicts a person designated to lead a parade. You can clearly see her marching forward, thinking she is leading a group, but when you look closely, the people are lined up with their backs to her, moving in the opposite direction. The caption simply says: “If you think you’re leading and no one is following, you’re just taking a walk.”

How do you avoid “just taking a walk”? It begins with communication. Certainly the leader must know the purpose or overall goal of the group and have a clear vision for how to move the group forward. But to make progress, the leader must communicate the plan over and over until everyone understands. This can be a real challenge, but you simply cannot overcommunicate with those you are leading.

One of my favorite books on communication was written by Harvey Thomas. His title best sums up this idea: If They Haven’t Heard It, You Haven’t Said It! Communication is the responsibility of the leader. You have to keep saying the message in as many different ways as possible until everyone understands the direction and his or her part in the plan. It requires much patience and perseverance, but it is critical for success.

The more you communicate, the better your followers will follow.

Lead with Integrity

You attract followers not only with the words you use but also with your actions. Who you are at your core, what you do day in and day out, often speaks louder than what you say. Followers want to know they can trust the person leading them. They often base their judgment on their observations of the leader as well as the words they hear.

A mistake I’ve seen all too often by first-time leaders is speaking negatively about the actions of the previous leader in an effort to make their decisions look good. Be careful. Your words matter, so use them wisely to inspire your team and move it toward the future.

In his book Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, author Joel Arthur Barker wrote: “A leader is a person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself.” This kind of following requires trust. As a leader, you can build trust by being open, honest, and transparent in your communication, making sure your actions match your words. Lead with integrity and they will follow you anywhere.

Deep down we all want to be the inspiring, trusted leader that others look up to.

As Christian women, the way we lead is cultivated over a period of time as God works His refining process in our lives. We have the greatest example in Jesus as we seek to develop into a leader who puts others first and is pleasing to God. As women of influence, we have the opportunity to inspire and empower those around us to reach their highest potential. Let’s make the most of our influence!

Wanda Lee is executive director emerita, national WMU.

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