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To Be or Not to Be a Leader…That is the Question.

Do you ever wonder if you would make a great leader? If you had the psychological makeup to become one? I ask myself that often because, though I love being one now, I have found that it does not always come naturally.  Sometimes I would even find myself in a “fake it until you make it” mindset and that is not always the best way to forge through the unthinkable. So I did a little digging. I wanted to get to the bottom of why I struggled with building leadership qualities when it came so easily to others.

Let’s start at the basis of what makes a good leader.

What are some of the essential qualities you think of when you envision a highly successful leader? These are some of the top abilities I've come across from my research and years of marketing VP and C-Level leaders.

  • Confidence in abilities
  • Decisiveness in decision-making
  • Courage to take risks
  • Grit and determination to actualize goals
  • Passion in work
  • Empathy for people
  • Gratitude
  • Humility and ability to handle criticism or failure
  • Proactiveness in seeking feedback
  • Ability to focus to drive long term results
  • Competitiveness

What if you don’t already see these qualities in yourself?

Chances are your ability to see yourself as a leader may have been predetermined for you long ago in your childhood. Research has found that the early life experiences you had in your childhood – how your parents behaved toward you, sibling relationships, and the stability of your home environment – dramatically shape your leadership abilities. The good news is it is never too late to change your mindset to become one. But first, let’s rewind your history tapes to see if you fall into the realm where you might have been unwittingly steered away from leadership at an early age.

Could either of your parents have been labeled as Helicopter Parents?

When you faced uncomfortable challenges growing up, did your parents never leave your side, or take over without consulting you to solve the challenge? This is known as ‘helicopter parenting’ and typically feels like your parents were always hovering nearby, whether they were needed or not. You would have perceived or conveyed them as being strict and/or never trusting your abilities to make good decisions.

While they were most likely only trying to help you and not cause you pain, this, unfortunately, may have had some unexpected side effects, including “making you less confident and less capable of facing difficulties, therefore [leading you to] exhibit poorer leadership skills”, says Dr. Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist.

Too much of a good thing can often be harmful. Over-parenting demonstrates to children they’re not able or trusted to handle situations on their own.

Psychologists at Florida State University surveyed nearly 500 undergraduates and found that those who had helicopter parents also tended to be less confident in their abilities. A different study from Miami University surveyed hundreds of undergraduates and found similar results. Teens with helicopter parents tended to have lower self-esteem, more emotional problems and struggled with decision-making – which resulted in being less confident in their leadership skills.

Sibling and family relationships (or the lack thereof) can play a huge part in your confidence.

There are many different theories and studies on the dynamics of sibling relationships, birth order, “only” children, and family units as a whole, and how these dynamics affect personalities, thereby positively or negatively affecting your chances of developing good leadership traits.

Here are a few schools of thought based on current research on how your formative years affect your leadership abilities in adulthood with some examples:

  • Being born the youngest of multiple siblings where you have formed healthy bonds allows you the freedom to be more creative, take risks, and be comfortable with competition. If you are protected and cared for by your siblings and have experienced competition fruitfully, you feel you can take more risks, trial leadership abilities with friends and school projects, and be comfortable with competition and team building. Plus, you have “board member” advice (your siblings) when needed. Sports can often provide similar benefits as well as team building, risk-taking, and competition.
  • First-born children are typically more predisposed to becoming leaders with their years of experience taking charge of younger siblings and being the “decision-makers”. “Watch your brother tonight while we go out.” “Keep an eye on your sister at school.” All of this comes with instant responsibility and can be a great trial for learning leadership abilities.
  • “Only children” lack siblings to validate daily experiences and might be more conservative in their actions, often looking to others to provide validation or feedback. Yes, sometimes this is true, but if you are an only child, you may get a bad rap for falling into a certain category of loneliness. Some parents have family or friends where their kids act as siblings for one another. Other “only children” can form strong “friend” bonds in the formative and adult years to ensure the gaps are filled. So maybe this research above applies to you, and maybe not.
  • For those with siblings, the quality of this dynamic can either cause or protect against mental health problems depending on whether there is warmth or conflict between them. Bad sibling relationships can often be more influential than parental dynamics as noted in “Soulmate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life”, by Lauren Mackler.
  • The family unit dynamic as a whole can be extremely impactful. Feeling safe or unsafe (for various reasons) daily in your household can affect your ability to make independent decisions and take risks during childhood. If problems were occurring continuously in your family, you may find you are easily distracted by the “here and now” problems in life instead of having the ability to keep focused on future goals. Leaders need to be able to continuously have a line of sight on future goals to actualize them. If you think you have been affected by this, you may have to rewire your thinking patterns to overcome these obstacles.
  • If you come from a family with a certain personality trait, such as being shy or reserved, you're more inclined to also have that personality trait. Genetically inherited dispositions can often feel like your “instinctual calling” but this does not mean you can’t break the mold.

Any of these circumstances above can have a big influence on how you move through this world. In my circumstance, as I look back now, my home environment was mildly stable at best, I was the second sibling, and I was not in any team sports of any kind. I don’t need to go into the details of my childhood and disparage my parents or upbringing because, first and foremost, I know my parents did a much better job than their parents, and,  secondly, many of us (as I have come to find) have had some form of hardship at some point in our childhood.  If you had no atrocities, conflict, and a fully supportive family – consider yourself blessed.

It's never too late to build your leadership abilities.

Though early childhood may have predisposed you to develop certain traits (for the better or worse), it’s never too late to learn about all of your inherent talents, even those that might seem hidden. Many people shy away from leadership but can work to discover they do, in fact, have the qualities it takes to become a confident and successful leader. It’s never too late to develop these skills, especially if you have always desired to learn more about leadership but thought it did not come naturally to you.

There are so many ways to take steps as an adult and learn new skills (or cultivate existing ones). Online courses are available, oftentimes at no cost, and can help you increase your leadership competencies. You can also start making small changes at work, like being more open to criticism, and proactively seeking feedback on your performance. Check out some of these free resources to get started.

1.       Udemy Leadership Courses

2.       LinkedIn Learning Library

3.       Coursera

4.       Weekly Leader (podcast)

5.       Center for Creative Leadership (podcast)

You can establish new habits – in 66 days.

You can decide to start this change at any time (why not now?!), and with practice and effort, you can shape your traits and attitudes, and start becoming the leader you may not have envisioned until now.

Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher, at University College London, conducted a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, that measured how long it takes to form a habit.

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period, where each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks. Findings showed it takes on average more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact. How long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In the study, Lally found that it could be 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit – so in reality, to build your new leadership traits, it could take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life. That’s not such a bad number when you think about it.

At the least, adopt a leadership mindset. 

No matter where you are in your career or what your upbringing may have imprinted upon you, you can decide to grow your skills and work toward feeling confident in a leadership role. It won’t happen overnight, but through practicing independent decision-making and improving your confidence – you may even start to see yourself as a potential boss.

As you work on new skills and hone your effectiveness as a leader in your own life – whether at work or even starting at home – you will see your desired leadership traits begin to build, and those around you will start to notice, too. Developing leadership skills is one of the most powerful steps you can take for your career, and it’s never too late to start investing in yourself and decide you are ready to become a leader.  But even if the leadership track is not your path of choice, it can only benefit you to gain the mindset of one to help you navigate the complex roads on your professional journey in life.

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