Is leadership something that can be taught? I don’t think so: If you ask me, we learn through life and career experiences — whether through our own experiences in a leadership role, or by watching others lead or watching them fail. I’ve learned to lead by both making my own mistakes and self-correcting along the way, and by recognizing mistakes made by others and doing my best not to replicate them.
That last part is really important: Leadership is about learning from your mistakes, but not letting failure define who you are.
I’ve been in leadership positions for most of my career. I built and ran the marketing department for an international technology startup company in my 20s. I spent nearly a decade building and running the Sacramento office of a San Diego-based public relations firm in my 30s. I’m nearly seven years in as the CEO of my own mid-sized PR firm with dozens of clients and a team of 14 employees. I’ve served in leadership roles on boards for charities, chambers and schools.
But being a leader is hard. And it’s often lonely. That’s why I’ve surrounded myself with people who I can trust to tell it to me straight and keep me grounded. I’ve built a peer network of other professionals who help me evaluate various issues, who help me keep perspective, and who also understand the challenges that come with leadership. I’ve worked hard to build and foster my professional relationships because I know that to be a better leader, I have to continue to educate myself every day — and some of that education comes with learning, directly or indirectly, from others.
I’ve learned a number of lessons from my numerous struggles — and triumphs — over the years as I developed my leadership role. Here are some of those takeaways:
What Being a Leader Means:
- Accepting that I won’t always be the smartest person in the room, and seeing those times as an opportunity, not a threat.
- Setting a good example for those I lead, and exhibiting qualities that define leadership: honesty, integrity, empathy, accountability, respectfulness, confidence, even when things are challenging.
- Keeping my word, even when it doesn’t always “pencil out” for the business.
- Doing what’s right, even when others may not agree with my choices.
- Being fair, even though it may make me seem “too nice” at times or “difficult” at others.
- Achieving respect without demanding it, and showing the same respect to others
- Holding people accountable, while being accountable myself.
- Setting the standards for quality and proactivity, and creating the path so others will know what I expect of them.
- Providing my team the right tools so they can best do their jobs.
- Inspiring others to want to lead, because even though becoming a leader takes drive and passion, it also takes guidance from others.
To be a better leader, I also found that I have to give myself some grace. As parents, we hear that often. Tough day with a newborn? Give yourself some grace. Struggling to understand your ornery teenager? Give yourself some grace. But that tenet doesn’t often get applied to our careers. When most of us have a bad day at work, we lose sight of the positive and only focus on the negative. We equate imperfection as failure. Small-business owners are the worst at this. Most of the time, we attribute success to everyone, and the failures to ourselves alone. Leadership is about planning for the future and always looking ahead, but still understanding how our past choices will directly affect how we get where we want to go.
One of the most important elements of working toward becoming a leader comes from recognizing what leadership shouldn’t be — and that’s ego. I recently stumbled across a TED Talk by Simon Sinek, an author and organizational consultant who spoke about leadership. In his talk, he said “Being a leader is a choice. It is not a rank.” Being the president of a company might make me the boss, but it doesn’t inherently make me a leader. In fact, it turns out that being a leader isn’t about the title at all.
Lori Prosio is the president and CEO of Prosio Communications, one of the Sacramento area’s largest and fastest growing full-service public relations, marketing and community outreach firms. She serves on the board for several local community and business organizations, including the Roseville Area Chamber of Commerce, for whom she was named the 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.