You are more qualified than you think: Four steps to build confidence in your leadership identity

By Katharine Stewart

Welcome back to this blog series on Your Leadership Journey. This is the second in a series of six posts designed to help you create a strong leadership vision for yourself and then apply that vision to the next steps in your career. Now I’m going to show you just how much of a faculty member I am: I’m going to start this post by asking you if you’ve done your homework. That’s right – in the first post in this series, I gave you a homework assignment (spoiler alert: there will be another homework assignment in this post, too!). If you haven’t done that, go back to “Am I Really A Leader?” and make some notes to yourself about the leadership actions you’ve taken in the recent past.

As I mentioned in the first post of the series, I mentor faculty and staff in my job and I also coach clients about building successful careers. And there are four steps that I ask many of those folks to take when they are thinking about getting more involved in leadership, whether that’s within their current job or in a new role. Those four steps help them build confidence in themselves as leaders and help them craft their leadership identity. The first three posts in this blog series are intended to help you work through these four steps, too.

First, you need to challenge your mindset about your own leadership. This often means challenging the idea that you aren’t a leader because you don’t have a “leadership title,” or it means reminding yourself of the ways in which you are already influencing and guiding others or making positive changes for the people and organizations around you. This first step is essential, and it’s why I started this series with it. Your homework last time was in fact Step One: make a list of your previous or current leadership actions. Since you’ve already done that (you DID do your homework, right?), I will ask you to get that list in front of you now. Re-read it. Imagine you were reading this about someone else – a list of what another person had done. I suspect you would be impressed. And so I hope you will take a moment to be impressed by the evidence of your own leadership actions.

Now that you’ve looked back to the past, Step Two is to look at the present and identify leadership opportunities. Think about your work and the things that are happening. Where are you – or the people around you or the people you serve – getting stuck or frustrated? What specific processes or situations do you or others around you encounter at work that make things just a little more challenging? Don’t get too lofty with this – I’m not talking about changing the entire way your university does business. I’m talking about specific things that make life or work just a little more challenging or confusing or frustrating for the students, faculty, or staff that you support in your job or with whom you work. Or maybe there are some things that aren’t particularly bad or frustrating, but you can nonetheless see a way to make them even better than they are now. Step Two is to make a list of the specific things in your surroundings that could be improved or need a change to make things better for others, the leadership opportunities you see around you. So the first part of your homework today is to make a new section on the page or in the file where you did your homework last time, and start writing this list down.

Step Three in this process is to connect your leadership experience to the needs you have identified, so it’s really about connecting Step One to Step Two. When you look at the list of leadership opportunities you created and you consider your past leadership actions, where do you see a connection? Another way to frame this is to say: did you learn something in one of your past leadership actions that might help you take action on one of your leadership opportunities? Typically, when I ask folks to work on this step in the process, I ask them to literally draw lines from a leadership action in their first list to a leadership opportunity in their second list. Sometimes, they connect one of their leadership actions to several leadership opportunities. You probably learned lots of important lessons as you have managed your lab or helped colleagues convert a course to online or created a data dashboard for your team, or whatever other actions are on your list. You also may have multiple leadership actions in your past that could support one of the leadership opportunities you’ve identified. And then again, there may be some leadership opportunities on your list for which you really don’t see a connection with past leadership actions. That’s okay – the key is to really consider what you’ve learned in your past leadership that you could apply to the opportunities you see around you. So the second part of your homework today is to draw those lines. 

Okay – that’s a lot of homework already! So I think I’m going to hold off on Step Four, which is about understanding why you want to be involved in making the changes you identified in Step Three. I’ll save that for the next blog post. But don’t forget your homework! You really will need it for next time. Hope to see you there. 

Katharine Stewart is the senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs and a professor in the department of psychology at NC State University. She is also the owner of Katharine Stewart Consulting, LLC. Katharine is dedicated to helping faculty and academic leaders develop successful and joyful careers and to helping universities make the most of their leadership search processes. Learn more about Katharine here.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.