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3 Things You Learn Over Time About How to Be a Leader

The average age of CEOs when hired to lead Fortune 500 or S&P 500 companies was 54.1 years in 2018, continuing a trend of hiring top executives when they are in their mid-50s. The message to leaders who want such offices is to be patient – or maybe move to Australia, where the average is more like 47.

Ah, but not all CEOs lead Fortune 500, S&P 500, or the top 300 companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. And with the rise of side-hustles and start-ups, some research indicates workers are taking management and leadership positions at younger and younger ages.

Whether you are in your 20s and running a small company or in your mid-50s and jockeying for a corporate corner office, you face some of the same fundamental questions about how to effectively lead. You can dive in when the time comes and learn to swim when you hit the water, but feel free to take along these three life-preservers based on my experience in that pool.

You aren’t the smartest person in the room … and that’s OK.

In my 20s, I believed I wasn’t as smart as many of my peers, and I was actually right. But I was wrong to worry about it or to think it disqualified me from leading.

Smarts counted to some degree, of course, but building relationships and hard work counted more. I found that having enough humility to admit I didn’t have all the answers was a key to building trust and respect with those who knew more than I knew about certain parts of our business. It also kept us from missing opportunities for success, which often happens when leaders are too prideful to ask for help or trust others.

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A bold decision can free you to soar as a leader.

The challenge for many leaders, myself included, is to know when to follow and when to lead. We’re always followers and we’re always leaders, but those roles shift through the years. And at times, they don’t shift as quickly as we’d like.

I often felt stuck when I my 20s. Stuck in a job I wasn’t sure was right. Stuck in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere. Stuck geographically in a city where I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

Those experiences, of course, prepared me to lead at higher levels, and we all need to find contentment in things more important than our job title, our dating relationships, or our address. But we also have to be willing to take risks that prepare us and free us to a different future.

For me, that risk was the decision to go to business school. That change sent me into orbit in many ways, not just because of the education I received while earning an MBA but also in the relationships I built and the confidence I gained. Sometimes all it takes is one bold decision to chart you on a completely new direction that changes your life forever. Think boldly.

Never lose a focus on serving others.

The ambition to grow as a leader requires the balance of an ambition to lead for the right reason – serving others and the greater good. I pursued an MBA because I believed it would help me improve as a leader and advance in my career, but those things were important because I wanted to have a more positive influence on the people I would lead.

When we’re younger, it’s easy to see leadership mainly as an opportunity to be in charge, run the show, and bask in the credit for your successes. I often did. But it’s more than that. Much more. I love the perspective from Wendy Tan White, who was CEO and cofounder of the tech company Moonfruit when she was 29. Now, at 50, she’s CEO of Intrinsic, a company recently born out of Alphabet’s research and development lab.

“When you do it the first time, everything is very much tied to your own identity,” she said of leading a company. “You think that whether [the business] succeeds or fails, it’s you succeeding or failing. Over the years, you learn it’s not about you – it’s about the mission you’re going for. It’s about the team you have. My leadership style now is much more about mentoring an incredible team of leaders to achieve the mission, not for me to do it. That’s a fundamental shift.”

No matter where you are in your leadership journey – in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or above – it’s never too early and never too late to make that shift.

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