Leadership at work isn't reserved for high positions alone. It's most effective in the emotionally intelligent, no matter their title.
There's plenty of literature about "Big L" Leadership in the workplace. Employees naturally look up to see who that literature may affect and how it could be helpful. But it's overlooked far too often that "Small l" leadership has very little to do with position for modern professionals.
It doesn't matter if you're a middle manager or the bottom of the totem pole. Every employee is the CEO of their individual job. It's your enterprise and your selling point. You may not run the business as a whole, but you are in charge of the survival and general well-being of your position. "The Man" isn't responsible for how well you work and understand those around you. You are.
This sort of responsibility was largely unnecessary in the past because job descriptions were much more concrete--assembly line workers, coal miners, textile manufacturers, etc. Clock in, do your job, clock out. It wasn't very collaborative, and new ideas weren't as necessary.
But now it's essential as an employee to approach your job less from the perspective of job description, and more from the perspective of collaborative pioneering with healthy work relationships.
You have what it takes to be a leader in your work place no matter your position. It starts with a real human sense of emotional intelligence, and ends with a more fulfilling relationship with your job.
Listen first, then talk...maybe
The office is competitive, but don't be lured into thinking that having the loudest, most consistent voice in meetings is will what will propel you into a promotion. It's quite the opposite. Managers and CEOs love quiet performers who listen intently and contribute positively to common goals--but only when necessary. The loudest and most longwinded office workers are always the first to be ignored.
It's the same in the break room. Office cultures grow together on respect and intentional listening. It's the only way to build the meaningful relationships that boost productivity and camaraderie when everyone goes out for beers later.
It's tempting for everyone to join in on community misery-mongering in the office. Work can be more of a pain in the ass than a refreshing ice cream cone, sometimes. Resist the urge to chime in on what's difficult because it steers morale into negative holes that are difficult to dig your way out of. Be mindful of gossip, boss-bashing, and shaming fellow employees.
After a very short period of time it becomes obvious who lifts culture up and who brings it down.
It's natural for us to limit our work to specifically what's expected, but rest assured that lack of personal investment will not go unnoted. Today, employees must do much that has nothing in common with their job description.
This is where silent leadership is the most audible. When the bosses need someone to take on extra responsibility, volunteer first. When coworkers are overburdened or drowning in a problem, have compassion and come to their aid first. It communicates that you aren't battered and bruised by your responsibilities, and you're personally invested in the well-being of the company's goals.
React mindfully. Take responsibility. No excuses.
Damaged work relationships, whether they're with coworkers or customers, are deep wounds that take a long time to heal. Reacting with un-tempered emotion does nothing but inspire a chain reaction of negativity and mistrust from others. It's happened to all of us, but it doesn't have to.
When these situations arise--and they will arise--the greatest testament to your character and value to the company is tied solely to honesty and calmness. If you messed up, take credit for it and respond with calm kindness. If the fault doesn't lie with you, state clearly what you did without blame-shifting or accusations. The ability to react with poise and integrity is a greater indicator of success potential in a manager's eyes than any mistake.
Emotional intelligence as an employee takes on many forms, and these are just the few of the basics for leadership in your company culture. If you're mindful of these points and committed to being excellent at your job, coworkers will start to look to you for guidance without realizing it.
Shelley Prevost is a psychologist, nationally syndicated columnist, startup investor and TEDx speaker. She is a partner at venture capital firm Lamp Post Group and the JumpFund, an angel fund investing in female-led startups with high growth potential. Shelley writes about her work on purpose, relationships and leadership in columns for Inc. and The Huffington Post. Her work has also been featured in Time, Yahoo Business, Fast Company, LifeHacker and Business Insider.