Can I Be a Leader Without Experience? (Yes, and How)

A man leaning against a window, looking contemplative.

I will never forget the time I approached the head of our division as a young professional and asked him the question, “what do I need to do to move into a leadership role in this organization?” His answer stunned me. “You are already a leader,” he replied calmly. I was incredulous then. How can I be a leader without experience? It took me finally becoming a business owner myself to understand the answer he gave, on which I often reflect.

Anyone can be a leader without managerial experience. In fact, those who are actively contemplating the question most likely already possess, and exhibit, the very qualities which make good leaders. Leadership is far more than a title or a position in an organizational chart. Leadership is often the unseen the role unconsciously given to you by those in your orbit who respect many qualities about you.

Read on to learn why our division head already viewed me as a leader, and why others may view you as one in your organization.

What if I Have No Leadership Experience On My Resume?

Anyone can be a leader despite the job title splashed across their respective org charts. In exploring this topic further, I came to understand I was already a leader despite having no experience on paper. One of the biggest indicators people may already view you as a leader is if they come to you for help or advice solving problems.

Former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, once said, “Leadership is solving problems…” If your peers frequently come to you for help, advice, or just to bounce ideas off of you, then there are already several things they are telling you. Without explicitly saying so, they are saying “I respect your opinions,” “I respect your integrity,” “you have demonstrated you care enough to help.”

“Leadership is solving problems…”

-Colin Powell-

People go to leaders to seek advice and help. Almost everyone has the experience of knowing a boss or supervisor who had no business being in that role. You would sooner go to a stranger on the street to ask for advice rather than that unqualified boss. It just so happened that in my case in the story above, our division head also happened to be a good leader, which is why I was inclined to go to him in the first place. Although the former Secretary of State’s quote about leadership is profound and gives us great insight to a key quality of a leader, the complete quote also carries with it a dire warning about the burdens of leadership.

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

-Colin Powell-

This remarkable quote sheds light on who the leaders in any organization are. And it also sheds light on who carries a hefty title, but is not a leader.

Leadership is Creating Pathways, Not Obstructing Them

Closely related to problem solving, is the art of creating pathways. Leaders in organizations create pathways to success. They are the ones who destroy obstacles, find out ways to circumvent obstacles, or design entirely new ways of doing business so the obstacles are no longer relevant. You can be a leader anywhere in your organization, no experience required. Solve problems, and remove obstacles. I marvel at how often I have witnessed people in positions of authority throughout my career constantly throw roadblocks just to halt the march of progress. It finally occurred to me why poor leaders do this. Progress threatens the authority of the weak leader.

A weak leader who has achieved their position through some sort of serendipity (or worse, malice), does not want change of any sort. Change threatens them. Good leaders, on the other hand, work to destroy obstacles and welcome progress. They are not threatened by progress because their aim is the success of everyone in their orbit. Their ethos is the understanding that the rising tide raises all boats.

A Leader Brings Out the Best in Others

At its core, a manager’s job is to extract value from her employees and translate that into success for an organization. It’s true that someone in a management role can temporarily extract value by being unpleasant to employees. But a good leader gets value from everyone around them by raising them up.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you are a basketball coach and you have a player who hits 65% of his free throws. You tell him, “you can’t go home until you hit 1000 free throws.” This poor sucker starts shooting free throws and assuming he does not experience any fatigue near the end, it’s going to take him 1,539 shots to get those 1000 free throws (1539 * 0.65 = 1000.35). No coaching, no help, no guidance. Go get the results I want and you cannot leave until you do. And, assuming approximately 10 seconds per shot, that’s going to take the player over 4 hours to complete. And he can expect the same task the next day, and the next. Unfortunately this is how a lot of employees are treated.

Now contrast this same scenario with a coach who provides the player with guidance. Use good shooting principles (BEEF, by the way. “Balance” “Eyes” “Elbow” “Follow Through.” A blog post for another time, perhaps). Put your elbow squarely under the ball, imagine your hand reaching into the rim on the follow through, don’t follow the ball with your eyes when you release. Also, put backspin on the ball. It will be softer on the rim and have a much greater chance of bouncing back towards you whether you hit or miss. This coach is not only showing the player he cares to make him better, he’s getting more productivity out of him. Let’s say the coaching provided helps the player to improve from a 65% shooter to a 72% shooter. And also the tip about the backspin cuts his shot time down from 10 seconds to 8 seconds per shot.

Now this player will sink his 1000 free throws in only 1,388 shots. And he will do so in just over 3 hours instead of well over 4. The leader got the best value from his employee by coaching, instead of demanding. It’s best for the player, it’s best for the organization, and it’s best for the coach.

And yet, so many bad “leaders” do the exact opposite of this. Why? Because it’s easy. They can churn through burned out employees when they get tired of shooting free throws, replace them with fresh meat and still show results on paper to an otherwise aloof c-suite.

Don’t be that person.

Leaders Foster Safe Environments

The division head I referenced at the beginning of this post was and is a good leader. In his very first divisional meeting with our team, he made the statement to us all “I expect and want you all to make mistakes. I will be disappointed if you are not making mistakes. Mistakes mean that you are taking risks and trying to innovate solutions in a creative way.” What an amazing message to send to your team. I want you to make mistakes. Often in toxic environments mistakes are punitive. People are punished, often harshly, for mistakes. This culture of fear only encourages employees to hide mistakes.

Once, I had meeting out of town with one of my colleagues. I drove nearly two hours to meet with her. And when I showed up to her office she was not there. I sent her a text message asking her where she was, and she replied, “I’m at a doctor appointment, why?” Annoyed with her missing our meeting, I texted back, “so, I guess you are missing our meeting then?” Imagine my shock when she replied, “I have it in my calendar for tomorrow, are you in my office right now?” I opened my calendar, and much to my horror she was right. I drove two hours for a meeting on the wrong day. What an idiot.

This was a pretty egregious mistake which wasted a lot of time, resources, and frankly was horribly embarrassing. I knew I would have to fess up to my error. So I called our division head on the way back and said, “Hey, do you remember that time you told ‘I’m going to be disappointed if you guys are not making mistakes?'”

“Yes?” he uttered on the other end.

“Well,” I continued. “you sure are going to be proud of me today!” He laughed on the other end, and after discussing what happened he simply said, “well, learn from it. Double check your calendar next time before you head out of town.”

Even if you have no leadership experience, you can help to create this kind of environment. A safe environment for people to fail means people are apt to be more open and honest about mistakes, which reduces organizational risk. Additionally, it gives people the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes.

Taking the lead from my former boss, years later I frequently tell my staff, “I love mistakes. Mistakes are when we get to grow as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.” Failure is one of the best teachers, and investing in learning from failures is absolutely one of the best investments we can make. Thus, committing to creating an environment where mistakes are not punished, but rather taken as an opportunity to learn from is paramount. And sticking with our theme of this writing, you can do that anywhere in an organization.

Final Thoughts

I hope the message is clear. Leadership is not about having an impressive title. Titles are easy. Earning the respect and trust of your peers is hard. People will obey orders for titles, but they will willingly walk through Hell and back for leaders; because they know leaders will do the same for them.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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