How to demonstrate your leadership skills

“Leadership skills” are one of those traits that garners a lot of mentions in college applications and essays (e.g., “During my tenure as Student Body Treasurer, I developed leadership skills…”), but often without specific examples to substantiate them. Just holding a position or office isn’t evidence of leadership. Neither is just holding meetings every Tuesday during lunch. Real leaders have followers who are enrolled in a compelling vision of the future that the leader has vividly depicted.

If you’re interested in leading, or if you’re currently in a leadership position and want to gauge your progress, here are three questions to consider.

1. Are your people going somewhere?
The essence of leading followers is that you’re taking them somewhere. Is your team, club, or organization focused on a goal, change, improvement, or other destination? If not, then they’re not being led anywhere.

2. Are you the person who is painting the portrait of the destination?
Good leadership doesn’t stop with adding something to an agenda. It describes a compelling vision that people can see, to the point that it excites them and motivates them to follow you.

3. Are you modeling the behavior that will get you where you want to go?
Imagine a team captain who talked constantly of winning a championship but consistently missed practice, or didn’t learn the plays, or played so selfishly that it hurt the team’s chances of winning. The first step to earning trust from your followers is to do as you say. And the fastest way to lose those you’re leading is to show them that you’re all talk and no action.

And here’s a past post (with links to other articles) about leadership as demonstrated in college admissions.

To do better work in less time, stop multitasking

Eric Barker’s latest post, “This Is How To Increase Your Attention Span: 5 Secrets From Neuroscience,” shares key findings described in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Here are three worth paying attention to, particularly if you’re a student or adult looking to do better work in less time.

  1. People who think they are good at multitasking have actually been shown to be the worst at it.
  2. Much like the fact your body can’t lift 5000 pounds, your brain can’t do its best work while trying to juggle too many tasks simultaneously.
  3. Multitasking doesn’t just divide your attention among tasks—it also leads to more errors and more total time spent than had you dealt with each item separately.

One at a time leads to better work in less time.

How to work smarter, not harder

I enjoy Eric Barker’s blog, which shares “science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life.” And his most recent piece, “This Is How To ‘Work Smarter Not Harder’: 3 Secrets From Research,” hits on three themes that can benefit any college-bound student.

1. Do less. You can’t be great at any one thing when you’re constantly multi-tasking 1000 things.
2. Make a conscious effort to improve within those areas of focus. Don’t just expect it to happen because you show up.
3. Find the joy and passion in the work (which has as much to do with how you view it as it does the work itself).

Intentionally incomplete

When you’re working on a project that can take days or even weeks—writing a research paper, studying for final exams, building a website, etc.—you might experience the onset of burnout overnight. You end your day, even one where you made a lot of project progress, but the next day, any momentum you had is gone. Whatever you try, you just can’t get back in the zone or muster the gumption to get going again. And you resolve to try again tomorrow when you hope to feel more motivated.

In his new book about the science of perfect timing, Dan Pink shares this great tip: End the day in the middle of a task. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Stop studying right in the middle of an equation or a paragraph. Stop programming right in the middle of a line of code. Call it a day without a clean ending point.

This might sound absurd or even torturous to people who find a lot of mental relief in finishing at a logical endpoint for the day. But that’s exactly why stopping in the middle can make it easier to get started again the next day. Pink points to the Zeigarnik effect, which is our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. When you come back to that unfinished sentence or equation or line of code the next day, your mind remembers what you were doing and feeling at the time. The sense of momentum comes right back. And that can fuel your motivation day-to-day. Pink even points out that Ernest Hemingway, who published 15 books, loved this technique and often ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.

Turns out one of the best ways to get going the next day is to leave something intentionally incomplete today.

Lights off, phone off, memory on

From the BBC’s “An effortless way to improve your memory”:

“When trying to memorise (sic) new material, it’s easy to assume that the more work you put in, the better you will perform. Yet taking the occasional down time – to do literally nothing – may be exactly what you need. Just dim the lights, sit back, and enjoy 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation, and you’ll find that your memory of the facts you have just learnt is far better than if you had attempted to use that moment more productively.”

And to be clear, that does not mean 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation while engaging with your phone. Turn that off if you really want your memory to turn on.

Do less and obsess

Morten Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley, just released his new book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve MoreThis clip of his interview with Dan Pink is just one minute long, but he shares one of the vital secrets he writes about in the book—top performers “do less and obsess.” They pick 2-3 things that matter most and hyper-focus on them. Interestingly, this is also one of the central hypotheses of study skills author Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

Most high school students don’t have the luxury of picking just one thing to obsess about. But there’s a good chance you could do less. If you’ve got activities that aren’t paying you back with fun or learning, if you’re sprinting from commitment to commitment with no real time to dive in and make a real impact, if your description of your life begins and ends with “busy,” it’s probably time to make some room in your life to obsess about the things that matter most to you. And the first step towards this healthy obsession is to do less.

You can learn more on Hansen’s website about the book and about his work.

Help them help you

There’s a great scene in the movie Jerry Maguire where sports agent Maguire, frustrated with his lone client’s stubborn refusal to take his advice, pleads, “Help me help you!”

The actors play the exchange comically, but there’s an underlying truth in Maguire’s message.

Most successful students get help on their way to college. Teachers, counselors, tutors—whomever you’re relying on to help you accomplish your goals and get where you want to go, remember that they can’t do it for you. You have to help them help you.

Some students sit back and passively hope the help will magically intervene. They wait for their counselor to seek them out to talk about college. They let their struggle in a particular class drag on and then ask for extra credit to raise their grade. They sit through their tutorial sessions but their mind is somewhere else.

But the students who lean into their help are doubling down on efforts to improve their situation. They seek out the help, they bring their attention and preparation to the exchange, and they embrace, rather than abdicate, responsibility for the outcome.

Best of all, the ability to make the most of your help isn’t dependent on your GPA, test scores, or your accolades on your resume. It’s a benefit that’s available to anyone willing to give enough to take advantage of it.

Ask for help, sure. Then do your part to help them help you.

What to do next

If you’ve got big goals for 2018—higher grades, more patient parenting, better performance at work, etc.—you may already have the blueprint to make those changes.

Think back to those times when you did the very things you’ve resolved to do. That time you got the A on the big test you studied so hard for. That time your own parenting made you proud. That time you made more progress or a bigger impact at work than you ever had in recent memory.

What was different about those days? What did you do—and just as importantly not do—that contributed to that result? And how can you copy that success again in the future?

Did you ease the stress by starting earlier? Did you get more sleep than you usually do? Did you ask for help, take meetings off your calendar, or lean into the project that actually excited you?

Yes, you can learn from what doesn’t work. But that just tells you what not to do again. Learning from things that worked, and copying that success, is a plan for what to do next.

For those needing—and granting—help

“Ask for help when you need it.”

It’s good advice, not just for students who need help from their counselor, but for anyone who needs occasional guidance or support. Nobody gets ahead alone. And one of the many traits of a successful person is the pairing of their drive, initiative, and work ethic with the ability to recognize when they need assistance.

In the past week, three different people have reached out to me asking for help with a scenario they were facing. A friend wanted some career advice about a possible job opportunity, a former student turned journalist wanted information for an article, and a Collegewise colleague wanted my take on a situation she’s facing at work.

The friend and the former student never said thank you. In fact, neither replied at all, not even with an acknowledgement of receipt. But the Collegewise colleague told me in person and again over email how much she appreciated and benefited from our time talking it over.

Of those three people, who do you think I would be most likely to help again if they needed it?

We should help people who are important to us without expecting an effusive thank you. The only better reward than knowing we’ve offered what we could is that of knowing the assistance actually made a difference. But it’s important to do so in a sustainable way, one that will let us keep giving our time and energy when others who matter to us need it most. And sometimes the only way to give sustainable help is to say no to some people.

And for those who need the help, please remember to thank the person who willingly offers it up. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes it much more likely that resource will be available again the next time you need it.