We’ve all seen it: a job posting where the desired skills section has a long list of attributes the business wants from candidates. Amongst that list, “leadership” is so often one of the first two or three to be listed. Most every company is looking for leaders to help their business excel, but what exactly are companies asking for when they ask for “leadership skills”?
There are multiple ways one can be a leader, and I find that Merriam Webster’s dictionary has three key definitions of “lead” that encompass the qualities desired by companies in their prospective employees. These definitions are as follows: “to direct on a course or in a direction,” “to direct the operations, activity, or performance of,” and “to have charge of.” I feel these three definitions create a sort of trifecta of what companies are looking for in a leader. Each one of the definitions above embodies distinct characteristics of a leader: guiding, directing and owning.
“To direct on a course or in a direction”
To lead is to guide. To lead is to show another the way to go. This definition equates leadership to being more of an advisor or mentor as opposed to being a hierarchy level above another. This aspect of leadership is important because it denotes the fact that being a leader does not require one to be officially designated as above another in some way. Being the guiding hand that aids another in finding their way is an integral part of leadership and is a highly valued characteristic in job candidates.
This is also the easiest piece of leadership to get experience in throughout one’s life. The action of guiding another can be involved in any number of one’s activities such as in a student chapter, a sports team, an activity club, a teaching assistant role, a peer mentoring role, and any other number of officially designated roles or extracurricular clubs. Mentoring another person does not require being above that other person or being an expert on the topic. Use your experiences to help others on their way, whatever that way may be. Be a guide. Be a leader.
“To direct the operations, activity, or performance of”
To lead is to direct. To lead is to instruct others in where they should be and what their tasks are. This definition is the more traditional idea of what leadership is: being a commander. Unlike the previous part of leadership where the only restriction is one’s willingness to lend a hand, this aspect of leadership carries with it the implication of being in a leadership role that grants one the power to direct others. Being able to successfully order any number of other people requires a multitude of skills learned through experience, such as planning, patience, levelheadedness, micromanaging, and macromanaging.
Companies value a job candidate with directing leadership experience because it shows that the individual has had the opportunity to learn how to plan ahead and macromanage something at the highest levels as well as micromanage and instruct others in the lowest execution levels. Join clubs, groups, or student chapters. Learn the ins and outs of the group then put yourself out there and volunteer yourself for directing roles. Apply for student worker, teaching assistant, supplemental instruction (SI), peer mentoring, or tutoring positions. Be a director. Be a leader.
“To have charge of”
To lead is to own. To lead is to take charge of something, for better or for worse. The responsibilities and ownership of a leadership role come alongside the powers given. “To have charge of” is focused on the aspect of leadership involved in taking responsibility for the success of a project, team, process, or whatever else. This also means that one takes responsibility for the failure of that project, team, or process.
Companies value a candidate who has shown themselves to be able to take a leadership role and make the responsibilities “theirs.” Companies value a candidate who puts in the effort to ensure that whatever they had leadership over exceled in meeting its desired goals. A leader needs to be able to show themselves capable of taking the actions necessary for their role. Much the same as the directing piece of leadership, the ownership piece of leadership generally requires official designation of a leadership role (be that role a permanent position or a temporary role for a singular event).
My suggestions for getting experience as an owning leader is just the same as a directing leader: join groups or apply for school positions that involve helping others. Put in the effort to move up into leadership roles. Be an owner. Be a leader.
To conclude, “leadership skills” cover different experiences: guiding, directing and owning. Taking charge can involve using your experiences to help guide another, directing individuals to complete tasks and meet a goal, or owning the responsibilities involved in a leadership role by doing all you can to ensure the goal is met. Companies are looking for those who have taken the opportunities around them to be a leader, and it’s up to you to seize those opportunities. It’s not as daunting as it seems so join a club, find a student chapter that aligns with your career goals, or apply to be an official helper somewhere on campus. Be a guide. Be a director. Be an owner. Be a leader.