“Leadership” as a Characteristic, Not a Credential

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At times, we feel like business leaders look a certain way and we make a quick decision about whether or not we fit in. Okay, you may see some trends if you line up 100 photos of our industry’s current CEOs and derive some quick demographic ratios, but the Leadership Diversity Committee within the Women of Flexo group exists to highlight the diversity that does and can exist in our industry’s leadership.

I propose that leadership is already diverse, if we’re willing to see it in a new way.
This is true for two reasons:

  1. We are individual and unique people.
  2. We are leaders the moment we choose to be.


There are many ways to judge if we think a person is deserving of a leadership position: what they have accomplished, how much revenue they have managed in previous roles, their projects that succeeded or failed, how many people like them. On top of that, there are hundreds of books that attempt to define those worthy of leadership and how it should look. Despite whether or not you’ve been granted a certain title behind your name, you have the ability to lead.

To highlight the inherent diversity within “leadership”, let’s consider the ways that the word “leader” is more about a person’s character than their credentials. As defined, this word does not dictate a certain age, gender, race or years of service. While a person’s depth of work experiences will certainly support them, the pre-requisites to leadership are not defined by a number of delivered performance reviews, a specific technical aptitude or educational degrees.

Leadership, as a characteristic, is rooted in energy
. Call it passion, projection or charisma, a leader is a person who others choose to follow.

Key word: Choose
People follow them because they want to be around the energy this leader exudes.

To illustrate, let’s set aside memories of our managers, and picture a couple simple scenarios:

  • How does it feel when someone speaks up first in those awkward breakout sessions at networking events?
    We feel quick and subtle relief, and we listen to the first speaker instead of stressing over contributing ourselves. Perhaps they fill the void and we all move on. But, what if they also lead their opinions with why they care about the topic? Are you inclined to respond with confirmation about the things you share their passion for? Are you more interested in speaking up too?
  • How does it feel when someone gets up to speak in the quarterly company meeting, and they are a “breath of fresh air” compared to the three burned out people before them?
    As an audience, we’re receptive to higher energy: we’re bored by people who are bored, and we’re excited by people who are excited.


  • Would you find yourself in awe if a co-worker stopped by your desk, just to check on you during a challenging project?
    After they walk away, you realize they went out of their way and they were being thoughtful with no personal gain; how nice is it to feel supported when you may otherwise be questioning yourself?

These are just three of countless ways we can encounter natural leaders in our every-day lives. In none of these scenarios, did I tell you the credentials of these three people, and yet we quickly appreciated them for their initiative.
Types of people we like to follow by choice:

  1. P­­eople we know and u­­nderstand
    • Try This: Let your teammates see you; let them understand your past, your goals, your strengths and especially your weaknesses. We all empathize more with people who are honest about where they are at.
  2. People that acknowledge our personal goals and show up for us
    • Try This: Ask your co-workers more meaningful questions about what they care about. Watch for opportunities related to those subjects, share them and encourage others to try new things at work.
  3. People who believe our team’s goals are achievable
    • Try This: Stand up and stand out when challenges are presented that you feel passionate about solving. Give your input, be that verbal or written. Tell your peers why you think it’s possible, and let new obstacles become experiments that yield new results and solutions.
  4. People we respect, even when we disagree with them

Try This: Establish mutual faith and trust in your relationships. As long as that trust is established, a disagreement is only a disagreement and will not damage mutual respect between leaders and followers. We all bring our skills to the workplace because they’re unique, and in combination, we can solve complex problems. Allow conflicting opinions to exist and seek out the ways they will benefit the overall process.



  1. People who let us try ourselves
    • Try This: When a team member’s inexperience feels unnerving on a big project, remember a time when you were learning something new. Introduce yourself as their support and safe-guard and be ready to answer whatever “silly” question they need reassurance on as they take steps through an issue. Provide guidance as needed, but remember to trust that others are capable when they are given the right tools, and are assured that they are not alone in their attempts. We all want to be trusted to contribute, so give others enough space to do so as well.


We can all choose to be leaders in any aspect of our lives. You can become a leader within your company, your social circle, your family – anywhere! – by actively choosing to embody these values. When you conduct your life with a leader’s mentality, you effortlessly inspire and empower others to do the same. When you’ve built the skills to inspire, you might just end up with that fancy title behind your name as a bonus.


Written by Alyssa Denney
FTA’s Women of Flexo, Leadership Diversity Co-Chair

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