As a Leadership Coach and a working woman, I’m very familiar with the feeling and struggle of knowing when to speak up, take action, and lead. Sometimes it’s the lack of clarity or confusion around roles, not wanting to step on any toes and ah yes, the imposter complex – that nagging feeling of, “Well, what do I know?”, that stops us. I remember when I was working at a law firm junior associates weren’t expected to speak up during conference calls with clients because we were there to observe, take good notes, and to make a list of any potential issues or tasks that needed to be done to support the senior associates and partners. A good lesson to learn and a skill that is very valuable, but it can be unclear as to where or how to add value. When I started working as an attorney for a company I spent the first few conference calls being absolutely silent and taking vigorous notes. After one of these calls, the lead attorney said to me, “Sharon, why didn’t you bring up that issue that you saw?” I thought, me? But I told you all about it, weren’t you supposed to bring it up? When the attorney said to me, “You spotted the issue. You should talk about it, it’s an important one.” the light bulb went off and I realized that I had been waiting for an invite to join the conversation, thereby letting all my hardwork and skills go unnoticed.
After that, there was no holding me back. I was all over the next call. And the next. And the next. But when we had team meetings I was again, silent. Why? I was waiting for yet another invite. I’m not a very shy person and I am generally pretty confident at work. But for some reason, I seemed to need permission to step into leadership. As I started to observe this behavior in me, I realized that most of the times when I didn’t speak up was because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes or ruffle any feathers, which is difficult as an attorney because our job is to spot the potential issues and work towards a solution, even if it may not be the most popular one.
Knowing when to step into a leadership role is confusing for everyone. Whether it’s not speaking up during meetings or standing up for something one believes in, people are inclined to just let the right moment pass because we don’t want to cause any discourse, we want to be well-liked, and we don’t want to seem like a problem causer. We also are afraid of stepping into a role that may not be ours. And so we wait it out and look for another time to bring up the issue, or not bring it up at all. What we don’t realize is that non-action can add to a problem and letting things pass means that the issue will likely come up again. But part of building your leadership skills and using your strengths is knowing when and how you can add value.
But let’s not forget one of the most important parts of leadership – making yourself part of the solution. This is where your strengths really shine.
I had a coaching client who was part of a meeting where there was an emergency situation happening and several tasks that needed to be done. But the leader of the meeting seemed scattered and overwhelmed and was not offering effective or efficient situations. So she stood up. See, her strength is that she is a terrific issue spotter and thinks several steps ahead of the short term goals. She also has great instincts and judgment and understands big picture goals. So she took over and listed the immediate tasks that needed to be done first and delegated the tasks with the timeline in mind. She took over, she took control as the leader in that situation and where she normally looks for permission or an invite to a seat at a table, she found a spot and plopped herself down. And boy was everyone relieved.
The reality is, not everyone can be a leader of every situation. There are times when we need to be good followers, and times when we need to step in as leaders, with or without permission. In those times, we need to give ourselves permission to lead with our strengths because others need you to lead them. The first step to leading life with your strengths forward is giving yourself the opportunity to let those strengths breathe. I encourage you, as I did my coaching client, to not wait for your invite but to give yourself the invite and be part of the solution.