How do you learn to be a leader and when is it time to start taking on leadership? Every student my age should ask this question because if you don’t then you have already set the bar really low for yourself. I hear different reasons for this like, I have to wait till I have more experience to apply or I don’t know what I want to do yet. Maybe later in life you aren’t going to be working towards the same goals that you are working to now or you might have more experience later but that doesn’t mean you should wait to lead!
I see a lot of mediocrity among really bright students right because they have it in their heads they have to do things a certain way and they are content in doing nothing for awhile. But when you have a direction, any direction, and when you are flexible you gain new experiences that may or may not directly relate to your goals, you can capitalize on that when it is time to do something that really counts.
Leadership skills take time to gain. When you talk with experienced managers, the executives like CEOs or CTOs they talk about the company or the team they are leading them today. Where did they learn their leadership skills? My theory is they learned it by practicing leadership. My theory also says that the time you spend waiting for something great to happen, or for some great opportunity to come you way, depends not on if you have your diploma yet but if you have been practicing with your leadership skills.
If you want to do something great you have to be networking with the right people. Students sometimes have weird ideas about networking too. Networking isn’t just about talking to people who are on a certain level of authority, it is about talking to those who are both higher and lower on the ladder. You shouldn’t just talk to the ‘manager’ that is immediately above you. If you can make the connection it is okay to talk to the big boss. And you shouldn’t just talk to the big bosses, you should make connections with those who are closest around you. The reason for this is that not everyone can be your mentor or give you a new position because of time and the availability of open positions. If you have diversity in your connections then at least someone will have an opportunity for you. Think about when you are looking for your very first job and you have no real experience, how do you fill out the application when you have no resume? Someone has to give you a chance at some point and you better your chances when you have a wide playing field.
Flexibility is so important when you have a goal you are trying to reach. Yes, meeting a goal takes hard work and determination but it will also take that flexibility to move in different directions to widen your circle of influence. Unless you are the daughter of the President of the United States or someone else really famous you don’t have influence in every circle. My parents certainly do not have influence in my fields of interest of engineering and robotics so I have to create that circle myself. But just like leadership, influence takes time to build. And a good starting place is where you are at. It would be hard for me to have influence amongst a circle of astronauts since I have no experience as an astronaut and only know a couple myself. But I do have influence at my university as the president of a club.
Flexibility really comes into play though when you take opportunities that are not in your field but do help you climb the ladder of success. Being successful in something other than your ultimate goal gives you operational experience, sometimes money to pay the bills and, I’ll say it again, more influence. But all the while you can choose not to loose sight of your real goals. As a young student interested in astronautics there isn’t really anything I can do that would take me completely off the path to reaching my goal one day, except for maybe committing a felony. So I have no reason to be afraid of trying new things. It is not like I know everything there is to know about being an astronaut so who knows, what I consider to be different from my goals might be right on track.
But back to leadership, networking and flexibility can help you find, gain and maintain those leadership positions. Before you know it you will start climbing the ladder yourself and as you climb keep looking for ways to achieve your goals. Move sideways when you can and hop on different ladders that lead you closer and closer. This is how you gain klout and influence from the ground up. But the real point I am trying to make is that you can shorten the gap between when you start at the bottom to when you become a high level manager or the technical leader in your field. It is by leading first!