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Learning To Lead

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
May 4, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 18

Credit: Shutterstock
There’s a right way and a wrong way to lead.
drawing showing good and bad leaders climbing a hill
Credit: Shutterstock
There’s a right way and a wrong way to lead.

No matter how productive you are, some things you simply cannot do alone. For bigger accomplishments, you must become more than an individual contributor, more than a team player—you must become a leader. Leadership is not about telling people what to do, it’s about getting them excited about your vision and engaged in making it a reality. To be a truly effective leader, you must go beyond just assigning duties.

Be Excellent. People only follow those they trust. For others to believe in you and your ideas, you must have impeccable moral character, integrity, and ethical standards. You must really believe in and care about what you are asking them to do, without a hidden or ulterior motive. A sterling reputation is not something that appears overnight but something you must build over time and maintain throughout your career.

Guide, Don’t Dictate. Most people don’t like being told what to do. They prefer to be involved in the decision-making process, providing input that is listened to and valued. Instead of dictating orders, offer gentle suggestions to guide others—and maybe they’ll arrive at even better solutions than you were planning. Leading questions such as “Have you thought about …?” or “What would happen if …?” will help them think through the possibilities and come to their own conclusions. Being involved in the planning will allow them to take ownership and become more invested in the project’s success. And asking “How can I help?” is a great way to get them thinking about what else needs to be done.

Negotiate. If you are working with only one person or a small number of other people, you may be able to negotiate. Determine what you need them to do for you, as well as what you can do for them, and propose a trade. The best deals come about when each person thinks the other is doing more of the work or when each person is doing something the other person is not good at, or does not enjoy.

Balance Tasks and Relationships. If you’ll be working with the same group over the long term, you’ll want to factor in tasks as well as relationship status. To maintain a good, long-term working relationship, you may need to compromise on some tasks. If that’s the case, make sure that the compromises do not affect the quality of your final deliverable—or that they take the form of an acceptable trade-off.

Create Better Consequences. Before approaching others with your project, spend some time considering the consequences. What will be the consequences for the other people if your project succeeds, and what will happen to them if it fails? Can you make modifications so there are more desirable consequences for getting it done and fewer reasons for not doing it? With these facts firmly in mind, you will be able to present a strong case that helping you is going to help them and not helping you would be an opportunity missed.

If you want to make a larger impact on the world, you need to engage others in bringing your vision to life. You need to learn how to lead.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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