5 Tips for Aspiring Leaders

Landing and succeeding in your first management job.

Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

DanyMena88, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: DanyMena88, Pixabay, Public Domain

Even if you’ve long been touted as having great potential, it can be scary to head out into the work world, especially to see yourself as a manager, let alone a leade, while you’re still in your early to mid-20s.

The good news is that you can, quite early on, become an excellent one. And in some ways, learning how to be excellent at that is easier than the difficult material in college courses. For example, if you use just the following five ideas, you'll have a real head start.

Getting tapped for a management position.

First things first. It's hard to use leadership skills when you're not a leader. How can you get tapped early for a management or leadership position?

Conventional wisdom speaks of needing to “pay your dues.” But if you have enough potential to have been selected as a standout early on, you may be wise to skip or at least reduce how much dues you have to pay.

Here are things you can do now to pave the way:

You’ve heard it before, but while you’re still a student, seek out leadership opportunities. They’re plentiful in college but not as easily attainable in the work world. So get active in a student organization. Sooner than you think, if you demonstrate tactful assertiveness, you may get to run the show.

Consider seeking out a quality internship. Internships can vary from envelope licker to respected leader's assistant. So be picky: See if you can find an opportunity to be at the elbow of excellence. To that end, in the interview for an internship, don’t just answer questions but ask them—for example, “What do you picture my day-to-day being like?” and “Every manager is different. How would your supervisees describe you?”

Such activities as student leadership and quality internships not only develop your leadership skills but will give you a true edge in applying for management or leadership positions, if not as your first job, as your second or third, while still in your 20s.

And now to five management musts:

Kind, collaborative leadership works... usually. Simplistic advice abounds, the most pervasive of which may be: Down with management by fear, up with management by collaboration

Usually, that is wise, but whenever dealing with people, one size doesn’t fit all. For example, if you’re taking over the management of a workgroup that shrugs its shoulder at poor performance, a no-nonsense admonition may be appropriate, with follow-through in punishing continued sloth. Or some workplaces have been ground to a halt by endless collaboration—where employees need three signatures to blow their nose. That often calls for crisp, unilateral, but of course, wise leadership.

Be crisp. Too much deliberation demotivates employees as well as creates delays, which can be costly, even allowing your competitors to force you to lay off some or all your employees. Most employees appreciate a leader who listens more or listens less depending on the situation but, as soon as possible, acts. Of course, the wise manager usually explains (crisply yet with any needed nuance) the reasoning behind decisions.

Crispness can be especially important in meetings. Many employees complain of meetings being unnecessarily long, for example, because the leader allows too many comments, some of which are made mainly to impress.

Crispness doesn't mean shallowness. For example, prioritize cost-benefit. Significant expenditures of money or resources should be analyzed for cost-benefit, especially its opportunity cost: Is there a better use of the money or resources? In considering cost-benefit, also consider side effects, for example, the impact on stakeholders, even perhaps including society.

Optimize processes’ thoroughness. In some workgroups and types of work, there’s no need for process—the workers have excellent judgment on those projects and do things as befits the situation and their strengths. Or a workgroup may have excellent judgment but the work is so complex that a specific process (for example, a checklist) is helpful. And when workers tend to have poor judgment or otherwise are poor performers, more process is often necessary.

Hiring may be your most important task. Do it wisely. Alas, too many job seekers fall prey to exaggeration and even downright lying. And even honest job seekers are often coached, given careful wordings for resumes and prepared responses to tough interview questions that are likely to be asked. That makes such candidates appear to be better employees than they’d actually be. That’s why top employers often rely on referrals from trusted colleagues. Of course, don’t allow a referral to blind you to a candidate’s weaknesses.

As important, interviews should avoid stock questions such as, "Tell me about yourself," "What’s your greatest strength and weakness?" or "Tell me about a problem you faced." More valid are brief simulations of common difficult tasks that the candidate would face on the job. For example, if the successful candidate would be running meetings, give the interviewees a one-page backgrounder on one agenda item and then have them lead a few-minute discussion on it with the interviewers playing the role of the meeting attendees.

Also, probe accomplishments that are stated on the resume. For example, resumes often claim to have saved the employer a lot of money. Ask, “Would you walk me through what you did to save the organization all that money?

Exert due caution on issues of race and gender. You must be sensitive to even subtle racism or sexism and respond promptly. On the other hand, don’t focus so much on those issues that the workgroup’s performance or morale suffers. This all requires vigilance and nuanced sensitivity.

The takeaway

Leaders often feel good about their career because they have a measure of control, the opportunity to make a big difference, and yes, to make more money. These tips should help you become such a leader.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

The Fellows in a leadership training program at two universities will be reading this article, which | wrote for that program. I thought it might be of value to readers of Psychology Today who are aspiring to management or leadership.