“I’m not an ambitious person. I didn’t set my sights on becoming a Partner,” replied several interviewees who agreed to participate in our leadership research project.

And these leaders aren’t in the minority. Many senior executives find themselves becoming what might be described as an ‘Accidental Leader’ – reaching the higher echelons of their organisation by default rather than design. That said, our research did uncover a few broad themes that could inform the journey from follower to leader.

Technical expertise or becoming qualified as a subject matter expert can lead to promotion. It might not take you to the very top but becoming, for example, a Chartered Financial Analyst, Qualified Actuary or Chartered Accountant will set you apart as having applied yourself in your chosen profession.

But those who go further are likely to step into the breach. These are people who want to do a good job and who care about their organisation to such an extent that they see a genuine opportunity to make improvements or drive change for the benefit of the greater good – not just to feather their own nest. For example, I recently met someone who had challenged their Executive Team to address mental health issues across the entire organisation. There’s no doubt that this person is a leader which hopefully illustrates the point that you don’t need to have a title to be a leader.  

Others that we’ve met have reached leadership positions through frustration – taking responsibility for doing things that weren’t happening and, as a result, eventually becoming more involved in the strategic direction of their firm.

And then there are those who enjoy being part of a team; they relish the collective aspect of playing to win and over time, they emerge as the leader of the team.  You must of course be prepared to lead but according to the feedback we’ve gleaned, the motivation for becoming a leader should be driven by sacrifice and service rather than self-interest.

Of course, we will all know of leaders who have stabbed others in the back to get to the top, but there’s a high probability that they will eventually fall on their own sword – or at least that’s what we secretly hope!

There are occasions when others will regard you as a leader before you see or acknowledge those qualities in yourself. This is an endearing attribute that will hopefully lead you to the dawning realisation that you are no longer the follower you thought you were.

Author: Thomas Chalmers

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