What are leaders made of?
September 8, 2023

What are leaders made of?

On 24-26 April, a team of more than 50 Young European Ambassadors (YEAs) had the chance to participate in the European Forum for Young Leaders (EFYL), a side event of the European Economic Congress (EEC), which was held in Katowice, Poland. The YEAs were able to attend the plenaries of the EFYL and actively engage in the group discussions held each day between the plenaries, where they were allowed to choose the topic of their interest. I chose to take part in a group discussion titled “Mapping out paths of growth for young leaders”, which promised to address the main topics around youth leadership. And that was exactly what the three speakers delivered. Under the moderation of Joanna Maruszczak, the three speakers, Krzystof Boguta, Dominika Guzik, and Aleksandra Peplowska, discussed and answered – based on their own experience – the four main questions for a young person who aims to become a leader.

1. What is really a leader?

         A leader, for Krzystof, is defined by three main qualities. First, he or she is willing to undertake responsibilities and deliver results. In order to do that, leaders must know their strengths and weaknesses and assess their ability to successfully address the issue. Secondly, they should be willing to bring change by taking risks that others would not take in a similar situation. The leader is able to escape his comfort zone when needed, thinking in an innovative and pioneering way that will influence others and inspire them to follow him. A third important quality is that a leader does not only inspire others but also knows how to engage them in dialogue, listens to them, their needs, and their ideas, and is ready to acknowledge and praise them for their contributions.

         Dominika bases her approach on the definition of a leader as opposed to a manager. For her, management is something that everyone can be taught, as it combines skills that can be acquired through formal education offered in schools and universities. On the other hand, someone becomes a leader through the experiences that he or she gains when coming into contact with people from different backgrounds and different approaches in life. A leader is someone with a vision, with a long-term rather than a short-term way of thinking and planning. They are able to see the bigger picture behind small, everyday situations and translate this to the rest of their team, inspiring them in this way to follow them because they believe in their vision. Leaders should also believe in the abilities and power of their team and never stop empowering them and urging them to actively engage.

         Aleksandra offered a different perspective on what a leader is, likening the leader to a professional sports coach. Exactly as a coach does, a leader is willing to undertake responsibilities not only for himself but for the sake of the team as a whole. A leader understands that every game has its own rules and that each team has its own characteristics that are more than the sum of its individuals, and therefore knows how to choose the people that are most suitable for the team. Therefore, the leader, being an expert in his field, is willing to share his/her knowledge and experiences with the team in a way that is fitting for the team. Leaders must also stay true to themselves, know their strengths and weaknesses, and be able to recognise and respect the boundaries of others.

2. How can someone become a leader?

         All three speakers strongly agree that there is neither a right timing nor a right way to become a leader, as it is something that cannot be planned and occurs without expecting it. Someone becomes a leader thanks to the different situations that he/she encounters in his/her life. For example, Dominika turned into a leader just a couple of years ago, while Krzystof and Aleksandra have been leaders since their teens. Dominika became a leader because of the pandemic, Krzystof thanks to his political background and Aleksandra because of a mistake she made that significantly affected her friend. They all followed different paths but with similar points. First, they were able to identify the needs in their field. Secondly, they were ready to seize the opportunities when they arose. Thirdly, they never stopped trying to become better, develop new skills, and work on their personal growth. But most importantly, they were able to understand that failing is not disastrous, it is just a hard lesson from which to learn and benefit.

3.. What are the skills that a leader needs?

         The three speakers agreed that a leader has to always keep working on himself, namely to further develop the skills he or she already possesses and to develop new ones. For Krzystof, social skills are very important for a leader, as he/she has to be in constant contact with people, to interact and engage with them in order to extend his/her network and at the same time to widen his perspectives. Aleksandra added the importance of character building, as a leader has to work on abilities such as managing his/her emotions and on embracing values such as solidarity and determination. He or she must follow the 24-hour rule that urges people never to leave things they can do now for later, but under no circumstance should the leader forget the importance of unwinding. Lastly, Dominika argues that a leader must work on a combination of different skills, such as leadership and soft skills, but also language and intercultural skills.

4. What difficulties may a leader encounter?

         All three speakers agreed that a common challenge that every leader faces is that of constant pressure. As already mentioned, leadership comes with a great number of responsibilities that usually result in a lot of pressure and hard work, making life balance time management a difficult task. Krzystof pointed out that uncertainty is another challenge to be addressed by leaders, as the only constant in their life is change. Dominika underlined the importance of understanding that expertise does not make you any more important than others and you should always be humble and down to earth. Last but not least, Aleksandra advised everyone to be gentle and respectful to themselves.

The discussion with the speakers offers a very important lesson. There is no success formula on how to become a leader that could possibly work for everyone. We can draw inspiration from the successful paths of others, but in the end, we all have to work individually to discover our own path to success. And that unique journey is a beautiful experience that never ends. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”, so make your dreams come true.

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