MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? is written by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.
I’ve had the privilege of partnering with exceptional women leaders from across the globe for more than 17 years. These women are phenomenally diverse – they run social enterprises, reform human trafficking laws, and use art to shift culture. Yet despite their differences, I’ve found that the fabric of their leadership is woven from common threads. And what they’ve taught me has shaped my understanding of what it takes to be a great leader:
When you take on a leadership role – whether at a nonprofit, in business, or for a local community project – it’s critical to understand your environment. Immerse yourself. Ask questions, encourage honesty, and listen to those around you. Learn about the people on your team; find out who they are, not just what they’re doing for you. I believe that all people have a deep desire to be heard, and truly great leaders recognize that need in others. At Vital Voices, we partner with women leaders who actively use their platforms to elevate the voices of others. They’re able to find lasting solutions to problems because they have an authentic understanding and connection with their community.
Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The most effective leaders I know have this deeply rooted belief in common: power expands the moment it’s shared. If you lead just for yourself, you won’t get very far. Use your position to empower others. This way, your impact – and theirs – gets multiplied. A universal truth we’ve discovered over 17 years of investing in women leaders is that networks accelerate their leadership. We’ve seen that women, often excluded from traditional power structures, are adept at innovating networks to share power and achieve goals. With networked access and influence, women are better positioned to recognize change and thrive in leadership positions.
Seek mentors and become one
I strongly believe that mentorship fosters leadership. Without question, the mentors who chose to invest in me have helped shape my own path. They taught me that a mentor isn’t someone who takes your hand and guides you along a path. Instead it’s someone who’s ready to stand behind you – win or lose. It’s a partnership. A good mentor celebrates your successes, but a great one helps you learn from your failures. Seek out mentors – internally and externally – who can partner with you as you develop your own path to become a leader.
And most importantly, invest in the rising generation by becoming a mentor. Share your wisdom, your network, and your skills. You’ll see that mentoring delivers a significant return on investment. It sets in motion a cycle of impact by catalyzing future mentorship. Research from a study by Catalyst in 2012 found that 65% of women who have been mentored will go on to become mentors themselves.
Leadership is a daily practice. It’s a choice we make. The most inspiring women I know have never hesitated to lead; they know that there’s no perfect moment or opportunity – they lead from where they stand. You never ‘arrive’ at leadership. It’s not a final destination – it’s an ongoing journey. Be open to change and recognize that you never stop learning and improving your leadership style. Even as an emerging leader, you have the ability – and responsibility – to practice significant leadership. The women I’m proud to work with have taught me that the most meaningful measure of leadership is the positive impact a leader has on those around them; so strive to leave a legacy.
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