Book excerpt: How to go to work

In this excerpt from their new book How to Go to Work, authors Lucy Clayton and Steven Haines turn their attentions to leadership, and how people new to the workforce can make sense of it.  

What is leadership?

There are plenty of views about what makes a good leader, but these qualities are always on the list:

  • Being decisive
  • Motivating those around you
  • Keeping the energy up/making it enjoyable
  • Seeing the bigger picture (while being all over the detail)
  • Having integrity
  • Knowing how to handle difficult situations

Fundamental to leadership is the ability to create followership. As Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Michael E. Porter put it in their chapter of the weighty Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: ‘The CEO can only fulfil his or her role, and do so effectively, by enjoying legitimacy in the eyes of those who must be led.

Leadership used to be about controlling people. It was all about leaders and followers, when one person in charge told everyone else what to do. As L. David Marquet, former nuclear submarine commander, reminisces in his book about leadership Turn the Ship Around!, “This model has been with us for a long time. It is pervasive. It is in the structure depicted in the Iliad, in Beowulf.’

But times have changed and, in Marquet’s view, the superhero model of leadership is being replaced by a better, more distributed model. ‘We can all be leaders,’ he says, ‘and, in fact, it’s best when we are all leaders. It’s not some mystical quality that some possess and others do not. As humans we all have what it takes, and we all need to use our leadership abilities in every aspect of our work life.’

So leadership is not about one person barking orders, it’s open to all of us. And I’m not going to argue with a nuclear submarine commander.

How to demonstrate leadership when you are not the leader

Firstly, don’t be in a rush. Early in your career there’s a pressure to propel yourself forward, you move at a speed that blurs the edges and makes you miss things.

But there’s an amazing moment in your professional life when you have all of the agency and none of the ultimate responsibility. Try to notice that moment and enjoy it.

Soon enough you’ll be the one the buck stops with, and bucks have a horrible habit of sticking around until retirement.

Equally, when you’re in a position of power, try to bring ALL your potential to that role – think of it not as the inevitable culmination of time spent on the job but as a platform; to improve things, promote change for the better and foster a future for those who follow you. Leadership is about more than a promotion and a pay rise, it’s a privilege.

What has defined Oprah and Madiba as leaders is their humility. They are true to their beliefs and values. They set a standard and keep it. And they call it out when that standard is not met. To lead, you must communicate what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable. You must own what you lead. Don’t be shy to say when your values are not the same. Consider how others see you lead. And read. Read everything.

Gugu Ndebele, Executive Director, Oprah Winfrey Leader shi p Academy for Girls ,and former resource centre coordinator

There are lots of ways you can start to think and behave like a leader even when you are not in charge. And while this might sound a bit premature or presumptuous, it’s actually wise to get some practice in early – there’s nothing worse than finding yourself in a position of authority and trying out leadership for the first time. Instead, practise along the way.

Some leadership theory is really powerful, and while I don’t recommend trying to read it all now, here are some principles worth being familiar with. They’ll help you start to think like a leader before you officially  become one.

In How to Lead, Jo Owen recognizes that what we expect of top leaders is not the same as what we expect of emerging leaders, so he sets out a range of leadership
behaviours for people at the start of their careers:

  • A focus on people. Taking the time to know who you are and how you affect other people, managing upwards and supporting others.
  • Being positive. Having drive and ambition, being self- aware, being adaptable, finding solutions not problems and being willing to volunteer.
  • Being professional. Learning about the business, learning about leadership and being loyal and reliable.


About the authors

Lucy Clayton is part of the charity Speakers 4 Schools and Steven Haines is executive director of policy and campaigns for the National Deaf Children’s Society. You can buy their book here.


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