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?