When I began working for Dell Computer Corporation, I managed a senior marketing professional who had recently come from Apple. He had more experience and formal education than me, and he questioned why I held the senior position. He was a brilliant product manager, but he was not a very good people manager. Eventually, he realized that he could still be a leader within our organization without holding the management job.

Although leadership and management are certainly related, they’re not the same thing. Being a leader doesn’t always mean you’re a manager, and being a manager doesn’t automatically make you a leader. The leader will grab the proverbial flag, storm the hill and people will follow. The manager will tell people to storm the hill because he or she is in charge, but if the manager is not also a leader, it’s difficult to get them to move.


So how do you become the employee who’s looked to as a leader, regardless of your job title? It’s about becoming both competent and confident. Competency comes from mastering your area and having a strong conviction that you understand what you’re doing. Confidence will naturally follow — and so will leadership.

1. Practice in the Field

This means getting experience doing what you really want to be. For example, if you’re in an entry-level marketing position but want to move into content marketing, volunteer to take on additional responsibility in the area you’re looking to improve your skills. Most managers aren’t going to turn away a request for help. If your employer isn’t willing to give you that experience, or if you want to transition to a different career field, look to a nonprofit organization. As you build your résumé, you’ll be building your competency and confidence. You can use that as a leverage point to get to the next level.

2. Get Formal Training

There’s no room for the victim mentality if you want to be a leader. You can’t wait for others to create opportunities for you to build competency. You need to take the initiative. That means making sure that you have the training and courses to stay relevant in your industry. In the college marketing class I teach, I offer HootSuite certification for extra credit. The students who sign up are demonstrating both initiative and commitment to the discipline — and they’re building competence. Leaders figure out what needs to be learned, and they seek out the training and education required. For someone in marketing, that could mean taking a Google Analytics course. If you’re in the tech industry, Codecademy is a great resource. Whatever the education is, you need to go for it.

3. Stay Current

Leaders look for and are curious about what’s new in their areas. They’re reading the online blogs, they’re following newsfeeds, and they’re going to conferences to see what’s emerging. This is about getting yourself into the conversation. You have to understand what the debates are in your industry, and you can do that by joining industry organizations or looking at publications. I don’t know a successful finance person who doesn’t read The Economist. Whatever the preeminent blog or publication is in your industry, you need to be following it. Once you get down the path of understanding and finding where the conversations are, you’ll have the competence and confidence to participate.

Graduate programs in The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward's University connect students with Austin's vibrant business ecosystem while preparing them for professional success. Learn more about our convenient weekend and evening programs.

David Altounian is director of the MBA program at The Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is also a partner in Capital Factory, an Austin incubator for start-ups, and the founder and former co-chairman and CEO of Motion Computing, a leading provider of mobile computing products for vertical markets.