There are days when you think that you might not be cut out for leadership. After all, you’re continually trailing behind instead of leading the pack; you sit at meetings and nod along to mediocre ideas, even though you have a better option tucked away in your notes. You never quite have the courage to speak up and share your inspiration -- even though you desperately want to.
Maybe your confidence as a leader will grow when you become an entrepreneur, you think; if you head your own business, you would have to step into the role. But here’s the problem -- merely being in a position of leadership won’t make you a leader. If anything, the added pressure and high stakes might make matters worse, leaving you without proper leadership skills, a business, or way forward towards your aspirations.
Statistics support this conclusion. Currently, the failure rate of all U.S. companies after five years stands at just over 50%, and above 70% after ten. Interestingly, one study conducted by CBInsights found that the reason behind these failures tends to root in leadership or directional problems; researchers report that 23% of businesses crumpled because they didn’t have the right team, 19% were outcompeted, 13% fell apart due to disharmony among team members or investors, and 9% failed because they lacked passion.
In short: leadership matters. Your success in business will hinge on your ability to communicate, raise your voice, address interpersonal issues, pick the right team, and inspire trust -- regardless of whether you’re an active entrepreneur or a corporate team member.
As CEO and leadership writer Peter Bregman puts the matter in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “Leadership is hard in a very practical way. It’s about managing politics skillfully and effectively to achieve what’s most important [...] showing up in critical leadership moments with confidence; connecting with people in a way that inspires their commitment, responding productively to opposition without losing your focus; skillfully handling people who push back; and building trusted relationships, even with difficult people or people you don’t like.”
However, the skills Bregman describes aren’t ones you should -- or even can -- learn on the fly, not when money and business are on the line. Instead, you should start developing your leadership skills now, while the stakes are low. The best way to grow your interpersonal working abilities is to practice them at home, in an environment that you feel comfortable being bold. Then, after you feel more confident in your communicative skills, you can transition those skills to the office -- and, one day, perhaps even a CEO’s chair.
Here are some ways to go about cultivating leadership in your personal life.
Understand Your Communication Breakdowns
As you might have already inferred from Bregman’s comment, leadership leans heavily on effective communication. No one will follow a dictator; eventually, someone will question your ideas or suggest a different course of action. If you cannot learn to listen, address push-back, compromise, or craft compelling cases to those you lead, you will never be able to achieve team buy-in for your ideas.
You need to learn how to present points and disagree productively -- and the first step to doing so is to understand where your communication skills tend to break down in your personal and professional lives. We all have fights with our friends, our coworkers, and our families; the question is how constructive those arguments are.
As one writer for Psychology Today describes, “Boiled down, the essence of many quarrels goes something like this: I'm right. You're wrong. And I absolutely positively will not back down or change the subject until you admit it.”
That kind of thinking exemplifies the heart of an unproductive disagreement. If you argue ineffectively, you aren’t just going to fail to make your point effectively; you may even contribute to toxicity as a leader. People may become passive-aggressive, disengage, or foster workplace incivility. These behaviors can come at a significant cost to your business in the long term; According to one Harvard Business School study, nearly half of surveyed employees who worked in “toxic” environments decreased their work effort and spent less time at work, 38% “intentionally decreased” their work quality, 25% admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers, and 12% left their jobs altogether.
So, the next time you disagree with your roommate, partner, friend, or coworker, stop to think not only of what you’re arguing about but how you’re going about the discussion. If the conversation seems to be reiterating the same points without progress, take a moment to step back and consider how you can make your point clearer to the other party and acknowledge their perspective without abandoning yours.
Everyone communicates differently -- sometimes it’s just a matter of meeting someone halfway. Once you know how someone interacts, you can understand their view and respond constructively. You still may not agree, but at least you can discuss your differences productively.
Practice constructive arguing at home, and you may find that the experience empowers you to make your voice heard at work.
Speak Up In Low-Risk Environments
If reaching out and communicating with those who intimidate you makes you uncomfortable, you need to brace yourself and do it more. If you know that you rely on your partner or roommate to talk to the landlord or insurance company representative, step forward and do it yourself. If you have a question about your car bill at the garage, ask the mechanic to walk you through it; if you’re stuck on a call line, tolerate the call center until you have the answers you need. Don’t give up, take the loss, or allow others to step into the responsibility!
Too often, we allow our fears of people thinking us rude, or of taking up time, to stifle our voices. Women, in particular, often hold back, worrying that being confident will come off as being rude to those around them. Speak up -- not rudely, but firmly, and with the knowledge that your questions are worth the time. As a leader, this will prepare you for leading meetings, directing conversation, and getting any necessary information -- without ever losing control of the conversational flow or giving in to frustration.
Step Out of Your Defined Role
The quickest way to fumble your shot at leadership is to settle into a role that doesn’t challenge you. Once you begin to gain some confidence in yourself as a communicator, start applying the skills you’ve developed at home to the workplace! Volunteer for projects at work if you have the capacity; demonstrate that you can handle the demands of management and project leadership.
Leaders aren’t appointed, but developed over years of dedicated effort -- so why wait to sow the seeds of your success?