Are you interested in becoming a successful leader?

Listen to what these 25 women say it takes to achieve a position of leadership

It’s safe to say that leadership means different things to different people. For this article, I set out to find a common thread among women in various leadership roles. I asked them to answer one question: “What is the most important step (or steps) you took to achieve a position of leadership?”

While the responses from these 25 women were as diverse as the leadership roles they hold, there were five common themes that drove them forward and that we can all draw inspiration from for our own journeys.

Say Yes

Our biggest adversary is often ourselves. And “no” is usually easier than “yes.” But Senior Consultant Cathy Baillargeon reminds us that saying “yes” is the critical first step to becoming a leader:

“The most important step I took … started with saying ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes,’ to a position that would push me out of my comfort zone and stretch me personally and professionally. Saying ‘yes’ was the first step of many to get to where I am now, and I am so thankful I did.”

The next time you’re invited to that event you just “don’t have time for” or you’re offered a role that you “don’t think you could ever do,” consider saying “yes.” You never know where the answer will take you.

Take Action

Saying “yes” gets you into the water. But what if you’re afraid of swimming? Fear unites us, but bravery or “grit and showing up,” as Broker Angela Kohls puts it, separates leaders from followers.

When Business Owner Teresa Rider looks back, she said she believes that her “lack of hesitation in moving forward and belief in (herself) and (her) profession” is what propelled her into multiple leadership roles.

And of course, waiting is not how leadership works, as an anonymous contributor reveals: “I acted like a leader before I had a position of leadership. I had an idea, … got others involved, and did it.”

Failure is Your Friend

If everything works all the time, it’s hard to know what to improve.

Business Owner Valerie Hooks became a leader when she understood that “failure isn’t a stopping point but a step.” In her words: “I see connections in the struggles I had in the past to my wins in the future and work to encourage others to do the same.”

Failing shows our humanity, and overcoming it strengthens our bonds with those we work with. Sometimes it’s failure that catapults us into a position of leadership.

Always Learning

According to the polled women, listening to and learning from those around you was a big key to becoming a great leader. As Brand Strategist Jen Urich said, “I am the leader I am due to the leaders I have had.”

In fact, Executive Coach and Chief Strategy Officer Jen Patterson found that listening and collaboration allowed her to become more competitive in a job market filled with hierarchy, big formal meetings and “selling” your ideas.

As she recalls, “Once I started to work in a way that was flatter, more collaborative … I started to listen more and talk less.” Within a year, an agency that had once told her she was not “brand name” enough ended up trying to recruit her for a top position.

Raise Others Up

Although this article is not about women striving for leadership roles in a male-dominated society, Business Owner and COO Suzanne Ferguson makes an important point: “Make it a goal to celebrate the professional women around you, because fragments of the glass ceiling still exist.” I would add that celebrating and supporting others is true for women and men, young and old, at all stages of the leadership journey.

Many of the women polled also touched on the importance of mentoring tomorrow’s leaders. Brand Strategist Jen Urich remembers following her own mentor’s example of mentoring those who she worked with. She said: “Who knew mentoring is leadership? My first boss did. I do. It made and makes all the difference.”

The Common Thread

The answers are varied, but the common thread is clear. Most of the women I polled did not choose to be leaders so much as they chose to step up and take action in their own lives and in their communities.

Keep moving, keep stepping, do it in service to your mission, learn from your team and have fun along the way. Believe enough to take steps and take enough steps to see progress. One day you might just look back and wonder at what point you became a leader.

Participants’ full responses are available to read here.

Abby Spyker is the co-founder and CEO of NW Media Collective, a full-service digital agency. To learn more, visit

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