This is what true leadership looks like.
I’ve spoken with many newly graduated designers over the past few years. Many of them feel they are ready to take on the world or even start their own agency. They feel they are born to be leaders, and that’s great.
However, at least 80% of them have a misunderstanding of what real leadership looks like.
Forget the lie you were taught.
At a young age, all of us are shown the importance of building leadership skills. We admire these great people who command respect and accomplish great things.
We place a higher value on the outgoing type-A personalities. Our teachers and parents encourage us to speak up and be leaders, because leaders have futures.
So we all inject ourselves with this pseudo leadership mentality.
We try to be outgoing and the first to speak. We learn to take command of meetings, even when nobody asks us to. We unwittingly embrace a small sense of entitlement.
I jumped to that mentality way too early in college. I took charge of my group projects. I was the first to speak up and present my ideas. I was a “designer” but I knew in my heart I was really a “director”.
I thought those were all the makings of a great leader, until I learned this:
The greatest leaders are servants.
This is literally Biblical. You can’t be a leader if you never learned to be a servant. So many people skip this part of personal growth. They demand leadership roles just because they did well in school. But frankly, great leaders don’t demand respect.
You want to be respected? Learn to have respect.
You want to be listened to? Learn to listen.
You want to be a great leader? Learn to follow.
Learn to be a great follower before you call yourself a leader. You need to play the long game and invest in your foundation. Be the master of grunt work, the connoisseur of night shifts, and the MVP of the clean-up crew.
Master the basics. The best farmers know how to make the best dirt.
Always be a student, until you aren’t.
“But Nick, I already was a student. I just got my Master’s.”
There is so much more to learn in the world than any University could ever teach you. So be a student every day of your life.
When you’re always a student, that means there will always be a mentor. Find yourself a mentor at every stage of your career. Open your mind to take in new ideas and teachings. Set aside your pride to accept new wisdom.
Do this every day, and soon you will find other students seeking you out. You will have something worth teaching.
Nicolas Cole wrote a great article on this. Find it here.
Be the last to speak.
This is difficult to do. When you’re in a meeting, it’s easy to be the first one to raise your hand. It’s easy to be the first to present your idea. That doesn’t make you a leader.
Try being the last one to speak.
Listen to what every single person has to say. Let debates completely run their course. Let everyone else show their cards and lay everything on the table.
You can ask questions. Get a better understanding of their thought process. Then, let their thoughts influence your own. Edit your ideas to fill the gaps that everyone else missed.
Then, once you’ve consumed every other idea, speak.
Don’t be followed. Be needed.
This is the biggest misunderstanding I see. Everyone wants to be followed. I tell you, it’s more important to be needed.
No one ever wants to be at the bottom of the food chain. But what if you run the bottom? When you’re the main supplier of what everyone needs, suddenly everyone is coming to you. Suddenly you’re on top.
When I got out of college, I didn’t start as a designer or art director. I started as a digital studio artist. So I cleaned up everyone else’s files. I mastered the basic boring shit no one else wanted to learn. Now, everyone needs that knowledge, which makes me more useful to my team.
But it goes deeper than that. When everyone sees you busting your ass, it forces those above you to adapt. Suddenly, everyone else is inspired to up their game. Hard work at the bottom carries all the way to the top.
To wrap it up…
Be of service to those around you. Don’t lead others, help others to lead. Find a mentor and be a student every day, all day. You can’t be a leader if you never learned how to follow.
I want you to be a leader. But I want you to be a good one. Humble yourself and consume all of the wisdom you can.
Humility is the key.