NextGen Leaders: Why you will never "become" a leader

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NextGen Series: This is the third article of five in our new series focused on the next generation of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the firstsecond, fourth and fifth articles. There is also a corresponding webinar for new & aspiring leaders - please click here for information and to register.

When I first became an executive director when I was 31, I was insecure and intimidated by the older leaders around me. Luckily, I ran a youth organization and felt very confident about my ability to help my staff to work with youth effectively, or I may have let the fear drive me out of the role. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to be a leader or what it meant to be an Executive Director so I just made it up as I went along. For years I felt like other people must know more than I did and yet I put a brave face on it, often feeling like I was pretending to know what I was doing. Now, many years later, I realize that my view of leadership was too simplistic and that other leaders did not necessarily know the ‘secret’ of being a leader. Leadership is a journey rather than a destination and we are all making it up as we go along. No two situations are ever exactly the same and we just have to do our best to manage them.

Recently, I came across a way of looking at leadership that I think is helpful for all leaders but particularly for new and aspiring leaders that may worry about not knowing ‘enough’ to step into leadership.

I am currently finishing my Master’s in Education (three more weeks - YAY!) and I am learning about learning. In one of my recent readings, the authors critiqued how we talk about professional learning. We often use metaphors like ‘acquisition’ and ‘transfer’ when they don’t really apply to how humans learn. ‘Acquisition’ applies to gaining something, but it’s external. We acquire a new car or a new sofa. ‘Transfer’ is the movement of something from one place to another. ‘Transferring knowledge’ is actually more information sharing than it is learning. We have effectively tried to make learning more linear in how we talk about it because it’s a complex subject. So, when the authors of my reading introduced me to the concept of ‘becoming’, I was sold. ‘Becoming’ in learning is about recognizing that learning is not linear. It’s messy. It’s unpredictable. It’s ongoing. It does not sit tidy in a box or a framework or even a standardized training program.

And it is the same with leadership. When we think about leadership, we think that we ‘become’ a leader when someone else gives us the title. We don’t. There are plenty of people who have a title that gives them permission to lead but they are not doing it. We think that knowledge will somehow be ‘transferred’ to us by other leaders or perhaps an envelope will arrive by owl in the night inviting us to a secret leadership academy where we will ‘acquire’ a magic wand. There is no owl coming. There is no magic wand.

And this is because leadership is also not linear. It’s messy and confusing and full of wonderful moments of accomplishment and joy. There is no perfect starting place. You have to just step up and start. You have to start ‘becoming’ a leader. And, there are three main things that you need to do to help you to ‘become’ a great leader.

Be willing to learn

It’s important to have an open mindset about leadership and what it means. Be willing to learn informally from others, including the people that you lead, and formally through leadership programs, articles and courses. The more information that does come in, the more you have to work with in the ‘becoming’. For example, the more you know about leadership theory, the better you might understand the kind of leader you are in certain situations. And, the more tools you have for communicating better or supervising others, the faster you will ‘become’ the kind of leader you want to be.

Be willing to experiment

It’s scary becoming a leader. We get a new title, more money, more power, and along with all of these things, higher expectations from more people. Not only do we feel our bosses are watching us but so are the people we are leading. It’s tempting to try to retreat into perfection. But as mentioned earlier, there is no such thing in leadership. It’s messy and complicated. So, commit yourself to trying things out and seeing what happens. That is how you will see what works and what doesn’t.

Be willing to pay it forward

To be a true leader means having an impact on others. It’s about guidance. It’s about coaching. It’s about helping others to bring their best selves to the work. We could even say that leading is about helping others to ‘become’ too. So, pay it forward. Foster a culture of learning and experimentation. Give your people room and permission to get it wrong. Help them to understand how they could have done better. And in time, you will have a whole team of leaders that are performing to their best ability and are engaged and excited by the work.

So now you know why you will never ‘become’ a leader. You will always be ‘becoming’... Don’t wait until you have the ‘perfect’ resume to step up. Do it now and start your journey!

Until next time,

Lianne Picot is a leadership coach, trainer and speaker that helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, a 12 week online leadership program that helps new & aspiring leaders to develop a leadership mindset and key competencies. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at and

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