Leadership in your 20s — save your frustration

Leadership Pyrimid — Taken from Jim Collins’ work on Leadership

Occasionally I meet a person in their 20s (or 30s) who are frustrated with their career progression. They are smart, talented, and driven yet they feel held back. The feel they have more to offer yet they continue to lack authority, position, and title.

This has certainly been the case for me. All through my twenties, I thought I was further ahead than I was. I was a better programmer than I really was. I felt held back by my leaders. Why weren’t they seeing my potential? Why weren’t they promoting me to lead others? What is the missing ingredient?

As a driven person, I’ve always focused on improving myself. Over the years that’s really paid off. I’ve become a high-skilled and sought after contributor. My pay has increased. I have more opportunities than in previous years. My influence has grown as well. Then you reach the limit of what you can achieve on your own. It’s a brick wall and it’s disorienting when you hit it over and over again.

There are things we want in life. Some of these we can give to ourselves such as losing weight or gaining a new skill. There are other things in life that must be given such as a leadership role or trust from a romantic partner. Therefore, some things are: self-given or others-given.

That brings us to the crux of the problem: how do we get what can only be received? Since we cannot control others, how do we gain what we cannot take? It’s a fair question. It’s usually not immoral to want to move up.

Think about that, “we must give them what they want.” If you want to get something from someone then they must be willing to give it. We must become givers. To phrase it this way sounds manipulative but it’s not. It’s about understanding the way people work, how I work, and how you work. Think of this, does a gift create a desire to give back? Does love compel love? It doesn’t 100% but usually it does.

In walks Mr. Team Player. Team Player is a giver. He knows how to help others. He knows when to bow to the needs of others. This person is loved by all because they make life more enjoyable. They help us get what we want. I succeed because Team Players exist. It’s easy to see how a Team Player naturally becomes a manager/leader.

I get the sense that people want to go from “Individual Contributor” to “Manager” or even “Leader”. But here’s the rub, you cannot succeed at those by skipping “Team Player”. It’s being a team player improves your sight. Looking through the lens of others, you begin to understand how to lead people and what truly helps.

So, here’s my advice, learn to be a Team Player in your twenties. This skill will pave the road to your future.

To add more specifics, here’s a quick list of things people want:

  • Recognition — Complimenting people is easy you just have to be looking for it.
  • Help — maybe someone is stressed and could be greatly helped by you pitching in.
  • Encouragement — maybe someone is working really hard and they feel like quitting, perhaps your words will give them the peep they need to keep going.
  • Support — if you are on a team, why not make your leader and teammates look awesome? Why not rally behind them and offer the support that one day you’ll want?
  • Truth — perhaps someone is making a mistake, find a way to tell them how to improve and give them your vote of confidence.
  • Quality — others need you to do good work. They need you to be reliable.

If you fight less for yourself and start fighting for others, you’ll find that when the fight comes to you, you won’t be alone. There will be an army of supporters behind you who trust you and believe in you and stand ready to follow you.

When people love you, there’s a good chance one day you’ll lead them but maybe not. There are joy and contentment in being a great Team Player and champion of others. And if you’re wondering why you’re not further ahead perhaps reflect on the pyramid above:

  • Individual Contributor — Am I great at what I do? Am I proving my skills? Do I deliver? Am I reliable?
  • Team Player — Am I helping others get what they want? Do I support my team? Am I willing to do the job nobody wants? Can I put my ego down and get my hands dirty?
  • Manager — Am I playing the role of a team player with a title? Have I let my title go to my head? Have I forgotten what I really here to do, serve? Am I listening to my team? Do I protect them? Do I advocate for them? Do I understand the individual members of my team?
  • Leader — Am I empowering my people? Am I giving people work where they may fail? Am I forgiving? Am I trusting? Am I listening? Am I being clear?
  • Visionary — Do I realize that all visions even my own are subpar? Do I see my own limitations? Do I understand that no human is perfect? Am I humble enough to lead these people?

I know that this model of leadership is imperfect. I know that I do not know how imperfect it is. There are many contexts and problems for which I am ill-equipped to speak on. Perhaps, you’ve found such a flaw in my writing. That’s okay, thanks for reading it. I hope that you’ve gained something here. I hope that perhaps you’ll see my flaws and do better.

Best of luck!

Part time mad computer scientist, full time lover of the extraordinary.

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