Karima Mariama-Arthur, is an attorney and leading authority on strategic leadership development and organizational performance management. She is also the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook,
Poised for Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.
The question of who can become a leader is a persistent one usually followed by spirited debate. There is no shortage of leadership theories. And, more than likely, you’ve formed opinions on a great deal of them already. Either way, your convictions have led you down a resilient path of analysis.
People are compelled to lead for numerous reasons, all of which reflect their own unique set of circumstances. Those who self-select, purposely seek out opportunities to lead. Those positioned by circumstances, “step up to the plate” when the need arises. However, no matter how someone arrives at this important juncture, one thing is certain: Leadership is rooted in influence and if you have it, you have earned the lion’s share of spoils for the undertaking.
The assumption that a leader’s success is predicated by title—that in some remarkable way it automatically confers authority and influence—is misguided. There are far too many case studies—numerous examples in nearly every industry—that illustrate why this is simply not true. Even though the authority to act may be derived from an official position, it is your performance (the quality of your work and the caliber of your character) that largely determines your success in the role.
Indeed, your example is the best evidence of your capacity to lead. But how others perceive you is also relevant. If you are seen as being empathetic and trustworthy, you are more likely to gain buy-in and inspire other to action. By contrast, if your integrity is constantly being called into question, there are clearly some gaps that must be addressed. If this point were taken more taken seriously, there might be less collateral damage to relationships, reputations and careers.
Social and cultural norms norms, as well as institutional practices, play a significant role in navigating the leadership arena. When certain standards have been established, there is always a pecking order limiting access to power. But sometimes access is governed exclusively by pretext.
And, when this happens time and time again, needless leaders miss opportunities to shine and create valuable legacy for those who follow. Gatekeepers know this truth all too well.
But, regardless of the challenges of this environment, the truth is that anyone willing to put skin the the game and commit to excellence is welcome to the arena.
Here’s how to navigate it well:
Set The Bar On Excellence
The most successful leaders begin with the end in mind. So, set high expectations at the outset. This means expecting more from yourself than others might and going beyond the “bare minimum” to accomplish tasks. The best way to establish a standard is by modeling the expected behavior yourself. Therefore, showcase excellence in all that you do. When your actions have the potential to affect everyone around you, including an organization’s intricate network of stakeholders, refuse to dabble in mediocrity. This is ground zero for establishing influence.
Improve Your Interpersonal Skills
Good people skills are vital to leadership success. High-touch interactions are the norm rather than the exception for leaders at all levels. So, it’s important to develop the skills that can help you to command a room (or a conversation), such as as communication and negotiation. By learning to navigate the complexities of human interaction, you enhance your ability to relate to others in an authentic and meaningful way. This only strengthens your gravitas.
Collaboration is an indispensable component of leadership as captured in John Donne’s line “No man is an island”. Both high potentials and high performers benefit from working cooperatively with others.
And, when innovation is the goal, it adds greater value to the process. So, create opportunities for healthy collaboration—it’s no more time consuming than assigning work in the status quo.
Encourage cross-functional departments to work together on projects—silos are overrated. Your teams deserve the benefits of the bargain, which include less stress, greater productivity and more congenial work relationships.
Conflict is a normal part of human interaction. No relationship is spared this awkward, yet constructive process. As a wise elder once said, “Tooth and tongue are in the same mouth and even they don’t get along.” Touché.
If you approach the process proactively, you’ll find the sooner you resolve things, the better. Work to discover root causes quickly, so that you can effectively facilitate resolution. Persistent hostility should not be tolerated. Learning to embrace the ebb and flow of conflict will undoubtedly boost your ability to lead and give you peace of mind while you manage it.
Deliver Results, Not Promises
Able leadership requires that results be delivered. Instead of touting wins from past performance, focus on capturing tangible gains now. If you find yourself struggling with the process, simply break it up. You can harness the power of chunking by breaking down a behemoth task into bite-size pieces to avoid stress and burnout. Remember to check in and course-correct where appropriate. And, if necessary, engage experts to pull projects forward. In the end, only substance and the final sum will matter in the tale of the tape.
Promote Lifelong Learning
Learning doesn’t stop once you enter the world of work. Busy professionals still need regular opportunities to learn and grow. By providing access to resources, both formal and informal, you can demonstrate your commitment to education and lifelong learning within your organization. By allotting time and resources in advance, you can also streamline the process, making it stress-free. Lastly, remember to acknowledge and reward participation—enthusiasm around learning is an important pillar of a thriving workplace culture.
My work has opened doors for many important discussions to take place around leadership and I’m grateful for continued opportunities to move these conversations forward. As Black businesswoman who has traveled extensively and worked in various high-profile corporate spaces, I have often been asked whether my unique profile has impacted my career opportunities, expectations of others or how I have been treated.
These are each great questions and ones that I look forward to addressing in an upcoming issue of Business Influencer, where I will explore the world of leadership through a DEI lense. These experiences matter on their own, in context and in the grand milieu that is the world as we know it.