Being the leader doesn't always mean being first

My kids received hop balls for Christmas. They've been on them non-stop, racing all around the house and arguing over who gets to be the leader.

During one of these arguments I told them: “Being the leader doesn't always mean being first.”

I got some blank stares from my kids on that one, but it got me thinking about what leadership is. I am currently in my first official management role in my professional career and, though it's not my first time leading others, transitioning into this role was still a huge adjustment. So what makes a leader a leader?

Leadership – the action of leading a group of people or an organization – has many different meanings to many different people. To some, it means always controlling the conversation and dictating direction. To others, it's being completely hands-off (sometimes to the point of nonexistence) to avoid interfering or getting in the way. And in the case of my children, being the leader means being first in line and winning the race. 

When it comes down to it, leadership is a very personal thing. Your leadership style depends on your own unique, innate tendencies. One can be in a leadership position yet still not be a very successful leader. The opposite is also true. The key differentiator (in my opinion) is awareness and empathy. 

Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Without it, you probably fall into the realm of being the type of leader who controls and dictates; however, just being empathic in and of itself is not enough. To be a truly impactful leader, you must have the ability to:

  1. Listen

  2. Support

  3. Empower

  4. Protect

Sure, there's always those pesky tasks and benchmarks to meet and blah blah blah. But what actually gets those tasks done and meets those benchmarks are... (wait for it...) PEOPLE! Makes some sense, right? 


There's almost nothing worse than not being heard. Everyone wants to be heard! A leader who does more listening than talking will cultivate a culture of connection and trust. Trust is a the foundation of a positive work environment. And a positive environment where employees can trust and be trusted means happy employees who churn out work they feel good about. (At least that's the dream.)


Find out what your team needs from you by asking the question, "What can I do to help you be successful?" This opens up communication, gives them the opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions, and (most importantly) builds trust. It may be "I need a decision on x,y,z," but it could also be something like, "I would appreciate fewer meetings," or "I really need your backing on this." But here's the catch: don't let their feedback fall on deaf ears! Pay attention, follow through, and be the support system they need. If you listen to and advocate for the team, the team will be inspired to perform well.


A good leader not only listens to ideas and feedback, but is also acutely aware of the individual interests, talents and goals of each team member. What excites each of them? What type of work makes them light up? Do they have unique interests or a particular skillset they want to build on? Try to find ways to help them do more of that. When individual talents are recognized and nurtured, you end up with people who are happy to come to work. The best leaders I've had were able to recognize things in me that sometimes I didn't even recognize myself, and they empowered me to further develop those strengths.


My job as a leader and project manager is to keep in mind our priorities, resources, business objectives, and current obligations. And to meet those goals, a team has to have the space to get there. It's easy to get into the habit of putting out the most recent fire first, but that just pushes all the other [more important] work that much further down the line. Sometimes it's work that the team shouldn't even be doing in the first place. It can be a tough balancing act at times, but saying "no" in order to protect the team's time – and ultimately the strategic goals and priorities – is sometimes essential.

What do you want to do before you die?

Yes, it's a jarring question. It goes straight for the jugular. And it leads to more meaningful relationships.

"What do you want to do before you die?" 

Inspired by this TED Talk from Kalina Silverman about meaningful conversation, I decided to ask this question of everyone in my department at the office. Some of their responses were: "Travel to Machu Picchu." "Write a novel." "Become financially independent so that I can invest in helping children." "Start a community center in my rural hometown."

As you can imagine, these responses lead to some interesting conversations that allowed me to gain a new perspective of my colleagues and a deeper understanding of the things that motivate them in their daily lives. 

So, what do YOU want to do before you die?

How I Became "the General"

It was my first job out of college. I landed a gig as a graphic artist at an ad agency whose biggest client was Kmart Corporation. (I'll never forget my very first interview when I showed my design portfolio full of college projects, which included a newspaper layout with a story about how Kmart had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy... The hiring manager noticed the story in my portfolio and said, "Kmart. They're our client." Talk about embarrassing. Yet they hired me anyway.)

I was thrilled to receive the job offer yet nervous to start. I joined the offshore account on a team of 14: a creative director, art director, production manager, traffic coordinator, editor, two account executives and seven graphic artists (including myself). I learned the processes and workflow of an agency setting and thrived in its fast-paced environment. We had ads due every week for four offshore markets: Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

We'd receive our job bag at the start of a project, complete with assigned pages and hand-drawn mockups. We would build the pages based on the mockups and client-provided content. We would hang the pages in a conference room and do what we called "Walk the Wall" – a chance for the entire team to look at every page and mark up mistakes. We would update pages and they would go through an editing process and a few rounds of client reviews. Once pages were approved, they would be sent to print (or in the case of the Puerto Rico ads, they would be translated to Spanish before going to print).

I observed other roles on the team and learned how to look for mistakes ahead of time to reduce markups from the editor. I learned what needed to be perfect versus what needed to be let go in order to meet a deadline. I gathered a good understanding of everyone's role on the team even though I did not perform those functions myself – and it came in handy.

Little by little, team members were laid off. Our team got smaller and smaller until we were just a team of three. Three graphic artists. No more creative director, art director, production manager, traffic coordinator, editor or account executives. Just three graphic artists. Yet somehow those missing roles still had to be filled.

The three of us would often rotate some of these functions, each week taking on different responsibilities: sketching page layouts, assigning pages, assembling job bags. We continued to do our Walk the Walls with the help of creative directors from other teams in the agency. Then even more people were let go.

I eventually found myself doing a lot of this work on my own, as well as communicating directly with the translator and sometimes even the client. I began sitting in on meetings with directors and managers to give updates on the offshore account. I wanted our projects to be just as successful as when we had a team of 14, and to continue to meet deadlines without skipping a beat. I became known as the point of contact for the team, and was eventually dubbed "the General" by one of the agency's senior copywriters and it stuck.

At Meridian she became the point person on our Offshore Account in a relatively short time span. Versed in both writing and design, Nikki quickly established herself on the account as one of the best and was looked to as the primary contact.
— Robert P.

The day then came where those of us who were left were called to a meeting where we were told that the agency would be closing and that – unless we were able to move to Chicago – we would be losing our jobs. Kmart would be merging with Sears, moving to Chicago where Sears was headquartered, and our work would move to Sears' agency, Ambrosi Advertising. I was devastated, but I kept pounding until my very last day.

New employees were hired to take over the account at Ambrosi and were brought in to cross-train with those of us who were left – and by that time, I was the last [wo]man standing on the offshore team. I trained three graphic artists (and even the new production manager!) for six weeks, traveling to Chicago for part of that time during the transition. 

I was a newlywed at the time and relocating to Chicago was not an option for me. Plus, I decided it would be in my best interest to go someplace new and develop new skills.

And that is how I became known as the General.


So long, Chicago

This photo was taken as I left Ambrosi Advertising on my very last day with the Kmart account.