Developing the Leader in You

Jennifer L. Parent
Director, Litigation Department & Chair Business Litigation Practice Group
Published: American Bar Association's The Woman Advocate
July 9, 2015

We encounter women leaders every day. From a managing partner at a law firm to a bar association president to a committee chair, more women are assuming leadership roles than ever before. But what does it take to be a leader? What are the skills?

A leader influences and inspires others to achieve a common goal. An effective leader develops buy-in from those around her and motivates others to perform at their very best. Cultivating their trust and support is key. Think about whom you admire and have backed as a leader and who has influenced you to flourish. You already have an idea of what traits are effective. You also have seen and witnessed what does not work.

A lawyer who aspires to be a leader can develop leadership skills and qualities starting at any stage in her professional career. It is never too late to begin, so take the opportunity to build leadership competencies now. Here are some tips to get started.

Get Involved

To be a leader, you must take the first step and get involved. You cannot be a leader unless you have something to lead. Women can lead in their workplaces, their bar associations, and their communities. Consider where you want to start. Women leaders today initiated their leadership development from different starting points.

Someone may tap you on the shoulder and encourage you to participate. When that happens, accept that direction. But do not wait for someone to ask you to join. Take the initiative and join an association, committee, or community group. When you choose what to become involved in, find something you love doing—and do it. Consider where you want to spend your additional time. Remember, when you are pursuing your passions and are excited about something, you cannot help but motivate others.

You also need to discover what is right for you at any particular point of your life. Are there times during the day that will not work for meetings because of drop off or pick up of children, the care of a family member, or an obligation you cannot change? If meeting times cannot be adjusted or you cannot remove the obligation, find something that does work with your schedule. Do not invite disappointment by not showing up or constantly cancelling. Your availability will vary throughout your career. Identifying what works for you now already shows your sound leadership decisions.

Do First-Class Work

Once you are involved in an organization or group, you must be committed to doing excellent work. If you are going to be involved, do it right. Make a commitment to getting the job done and done well. Attend the meetings, volunteer to take on projects, and follow through on responsibilities delegated to you. A competent, hard-working, and committed person gains the approval and trust of colleagues. People follow those they respect.

Volunteer to chair an event or help on a subcommittee. Saying “I will take that on” lets others know you are committed and can get things done. Start with your strengths and volunteer for those opportunities. If you are good with numbers or have strong communication skills, think about fundraising opportunities. If you view the world “big picture,” consider a strategic planning initiative. If you enjoy pulling people together for a common purpose, volunteer to coordinate an event or program.

Importantly, carrying through as promised builds others’ confidence in you. In no time at all, people will start to look to you for direction. Dedication, hard work, and being someone people can depend on to get the job done make the difference.

Find a Mentor or Sponsor

There have been many articles written on mentors and sponsors. Whomever you choose, find someone who can help motivate and guide you in building your leadership ability. You want to find someone who supports and champions your success. Use her as a confidante or sounding board, to identify those organizations you should join in order to foster and showcase your leadership ability. Your mentor can offer you her experience and the methods, skills, or work habits that she has found successful over her career. You can also gain valuable insight about skills such as running a meeting, managing delegation, and networking.

You may admire several leaders throughout your professional career. Consider which traits each person has that make you hold her in high regard. Model the successful behaviors of someone who has achieved a high leadership role. She may never even know you are taking her lead as you create your own path to leadership.

Be Yourself

Only when you are true to who you are do you come across as confident and trustworthy—a leader. While you may be guided by and learn from a sponsor or mentor, you do not want to merely imitate someone else’s leadership style. Find your strong points and develop your unique leadership strengths. Hone the skills that work for you. History shows that leaders have differing styles, and that no one style is synonymous with being a good or an effective leader. Being yourself gives you a self-assurance that attracts people.

Commit to Listening

Leaders listen. While a leader inspires others to follow a charted course, accepting input from others can help guide the direction you travel. There is never only one way to do things. A diversity of viewpoints allows a broader range of ideas to enhance an organization. While listening does not come naturally and can be hard to do, it is essential to effective leadership. Everyone wants to be heard. When others feel that you have really listened to them, you gain their trust and respect.

Create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas. Know that everyone is watching your reaction. If people feel that you are not open to listening, they will not share their views, observations, or assessments. So when others do speak up, thank them for sharing and contributing to the discussion. If you are unsure how to process a suggestion at the time, rather than suffocate and immediately dismiss the person’s comments, say something like, “That’s an interesting new idea,” or “We haven’t looked at it from that angle before.” Recognizing the contributions of others may lead to a stronger plan of action. It also makes people feel that they are all part of the success.

Set Goals and Follow Through

Know your objectives and have a plan to achieve them. Without a vision, you have no direction. Write down the goals you want to achieve and then take action every day toward realizing them. Monitor your performance along the way to see how you are doing. Whatever happens, do not give up. Hard work pays off in the end.

Give Back

Once you have achieved a leadership role, reach out and recruit another woman. Pay it forward by helping another woman develop as a leader. We are stronger together.

So, what are you waiting for? Plan your success as a leader today. Take on a leadership role that is right for you and develop your leadership style and skills. Remember, it is never too late to start.