How to Be a Leader at Every Stage of Your Career

Leaders (and everyone reading this is a leader irrespective of title or duties): sweat the small stuff. Notice details and pay attention to the invisible dynamics around you. In our ever-evolving world, yesterday’s intern could be your future boss. Chuckle at your peril…

Much has been written about situational leadership, including the excellent theory posited by Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard, stating that there is no single best style of leadership. Rather, leadership should be task-focused and adhere to the maturity level of the team/individuals involved. Sound good?

Indeed, we engage (or not) in situational leadership at all stages of our careers. Moreover, we should be more cognizant of this and focus on what we can learn from each step. Consider the following:

• In your very first job, you have been instructed to attend a mandatory training course. No one is talking in your group role-play session. This is an opportunity to step in to start, facilitate or guide the activity.

• You are a Foreign Service Officer in a new assignment overseas. You possess significantly more experience than your boss in DC, who is ranked two grades lower than you. Your boss is still your boss. Figure out a way to work together to bring complementary strengths in alignment.

• You’ve been managing a cohesive, productive team for several years (congratulations). A new employee joins who has a very different style and manner of working. Learn what makes this person tick, then make accommodations to incorporate this person’s assets into your team.

In addition to changing how you work with your teams in different situations, sometimes your situation changes. You reach out to a former intern for a job referral (it’s happened). Or the obnoxious contractor whose calls you never answer has a piece of information you urgently need (a frequent occurrence). Good leadership and situational awareness will help you navigate these changes with ease.

Along these lines, I am consistently struck by how often people kiss up to their managers and bosses and ignore or kick down those around and below them. Bosses and managers retire, but colleagues tend to stick around longer (and with very sticky memories!). And someday the colleague you once blew off could very well be your manager or in a position to make important decisions that could impact you.

Even without managing or having any authority over a person, you can exercise leadership. In fact, you should be practicing if you do want a position with a leadership title. Luckily, there are myriad ways to gain leadership experience before assuming an official leadership mantle. As an example, I was surprised when I volunteered to serve as the Daisy Scout leader for my daughter’s troop. The girls raised their heads to me from sitting in the Girl Scout circle, eyes wide and enlarged from the glare of their blue vests. I assumed that this was merely a volunteer opportunity until it was pointed out that it was, in fact, an excellent leadership exercise. (And there is no less judgmental group than a crowd of six year olds, a great way to boost your leadership chops!).

So you can be a leader, even if you’re the youngest, newest person on your team. You should look for opportunities to hone your leadership skills in a comfortable setting to get ready for considering a professional leadership role. Always be aware of your situations and how they’re changing. As things change, likewise do power and authority wax and wane. This awareness should impact how you lead in specific situations and why. And always remember to take your interns out to lunch and give them interesting projects! You never know who you might be calling “boss” in the future…

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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