What You Need If You are Called to Lead

by Dr. Rhea Seddon, astronaut and author

Today’s world offers significant challenges for both emerging and experienced leaders. Many people don’t start out to be a leader but the paths they have chosen require that they become one. Regardless of the size of the group, its makeup or goals, there are proven principles that can be applied to lead any assemblage of people – even though it may feel like herding cats.

What to do if you aren’t a born leader

It is sometimes said that leaders are not born, they learn how to lead. Often, this means jumping in and “faking it until you make it.” Starting small always makes good sense. Watch what other, more experienced workers do. Take note of how the leader of the group brings people together to achieve specific goals. Then ask to take on more difficult tasks. There always are people who will appreciate help and help in return.

Apply three principles of military leadership

There are three important principles that military officers are taught to use when they are responsible for commanding personnel.

First, they must know their own job and duties exceedingly well. This gives them credibility not only with their followers but also with their superiors. Troops must have confidence in the leader’s capabilities, knowing that someday they may be used on the battlefield.

Second, military officers must know that things can go wrong – and probably will. It’s the adage, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” It is only through considering possible failure modes and then practicing how to handle them that leaders will understand what must be done quickly in any time-critical situation.

Third, good leaders take care of their people. Focus not only on what jobs must be done, but on the needs and challenges individuals may face.

Understand who is being led

Leaders must connect with the people they lead and tailor a leadership style to their specific needs. Every group is made up of individuals who come with different backgrounds, personalities and capabilities. A leader must decide who does what so each person will find his/her job fulfilling and the group, as a whole, reaches its peak performance. Leaders have to become a motivator, team builder and goal setter, taking responsibility for the group’s outcomes, sharing the praise and taking responsibility for the blame.

When failure happens

No leader is immune from failure. It has been said, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying.” People learn from trying and from pushing the boundaries. This requires taking risk on occasion. That may lead to poor outcomes along the way and a feeling of failure and disappointment. At times like this, a good leader admits that mistakes were made, corrects them, profits from the experience and shares what was learned. Most importantly, a good leader encourages the team to continue making progress. People don’t know what they are capable of unless they try.

Finding role models

Leaders come in all varieties. A great boss will give frequent praise, offering credit when it is due or support when needed, and they share their secrets for success. Having a bad leader will illustrate how easily a project or a plan can go awry. Some role models will teach what not to do in the way they treat employees and staff. Berating workers, failing to provide feedback about performance, harassment, lack of recognition – all can drive away the most patient of workers.

When in a leadership role and uncertain of how to proceed, learn from observing leaders who get great results. Listen to those who have had formal leadership training; they have many lessons to share. Find mentors who are willing to help.

Tailor your leadership style to the people and circumstances of the group being led. Observe leaders who perform poorly and strive not to emulate them. Fix problems by admitting they exist and learn from them to move forward.

Dr. Rhea Seddon is an astronaut and the author of “Go for Orbit,” a memoir about her adventures spending 30 days in space aboard the space shuttle. She also is a former surgeon, healthcare executive and entrepreneur. Dr. Seddon speaks to audiences of all kinds on the topics of teamwork, leadership and taking advantage of opportunities. To learn more, visit www.astronautrheaseddon.com.