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Leadership At Work Is An Art Form. Here's How To Practice It.18:10
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 (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)
(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Throughout history – and probably in your own life – you've seen examples of good and bad leaders. They can lift you up or drag you down, praise a group effort or promote themselves. And at work, leaders are often the difference between a great job and a terrible one.

That's why career development expert Kimberly B. Cummings says leadership is an "art form." Because it's not something everyone can or wants to do well, and it truly takes practice to "create a team atmosphere where people are happy, excited to come to work, and excited to do the work."

Kimberly B. Cummings is a career and leadership development expert and the author of Next Move, Best Move. (Photograph by Mecca Gamble; Collage by NPR)

Here are six tips to become a great leader, whether you're a manager or an employee:

Practice "radical transparency"

"The higher up you go in the workplace, the more secrecy there is," says Cummings, author of Next Move, Best Move. As a manager, you can break that cycle of secrecy by including your employees in decisions that directly affect them. Let them in on the "inner circle" of decisions by asking for feedback on proposals or sharing important news before it becomes public.

Study how your team works

Being a manager isn't just about checking off tasks and evaluating your employees' performance. Leaders should also make it their job to understand their teams as a whole, understand the people on their team as individuals, and understand who has been on the team before and how they were treated.

Studying the "full 360" of your team helps you develop your group as an "ecosystem," says Cummings. You are interconnected, after all, and the success of one person drives the success of others.

Seek mentorship

Most managers are not trained to be managers. And some managers don't even want to be managers! If you find yourself unexpectedly in charge of leading a team, reach out to a boss you liked before and ask them for advice to guide you through this process.

Put yourself in the position to do the kind of work you love. Schedule time with your supervisor to highlight your performance and what you're working toward. (We Are/Getty Images)

If you're not a manager, harness your power by "managing up"

Even if you don't manage people, it doesn't mean you can't be a leader at work. Start with your relationship with your boss. Don't wait for them to notice and reward the work you've done. And don't sit around waiting for them to create a plan for you based on their idea of what you can do.

Instead, put yourself in the position to do the kind of work you love. This is the "play chess, not checkers" approach to work. Schedule time with your supervisor to highlight how you have performed and what you are working toward. Don't be afraid to correct the narrative if you think they have an incomplete idea of who you are and what you can do.

Don't wait until things get bad

You shouldn't wait until things sour with your boss or until you're ready for a promotion to start "managing up." If you're only trying to get out of a bad situation, you're starting from behind.

Give your boss a preview of your potential

If you want more leadership opportunities but don't manage anyone or any projects yet, give your supervisor a preview of what you can do. Ask yourself: How are you innovating your current role? Does your work have an impact beyond your team? How are you adding value to your workplace?

If you have evidence-based answers for at least one or two of these questions, Cummings says you're positioning yourself well for your next role.


Kimberly B. Cummings is the author of Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You'll Love.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with audio engineering support from Neal Rauch.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Copyright NPR 2022.

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