Leadership does not come from position or title—leaders accomplish things because others choose to follow them. In her book The Road to Leadership, nursing professor emerita Carol Huston shares nine lessons from her personal journey that she knows are applicable no matter your field or discipline. Our background and circumstances influence who we are, she says, but we are responsible for who we become.

Portrait of Carol Huston.
Carol Huston’s advice on leadership is what she learned through her personal journey, from lessons she learned both easily and the hard way, and helped make her into a confident, successful leader herself. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Find a mentor and positive role models to share your journey.

Having one or more mentors is a vital part of a leadership journey. It is the mentor’s vision and willingness to be a cheerleader that often truly makes the difference.

Be self-aware and authentic.

Know what values you hold dear and ensure the actions you take are in accord with them. It takes courage to be true to one’s convictions when external forces or peer pressure encourages us to do something different. Being genuine is the cornerstone of trust.

Be able to laugh at yourself and leave your ego at home in a jar.

Sometimes we take ourselves far too seriously. Humility and humor are underrecognized leadership traits, especially when it is a true part of character. Let your pretenses down, and know it’s OK to be fallible.

Be visionary, take risks and ask for permission only when necessary.

When leaders espouse a powerful vision that other people want to share, followers are motivated to act. Dream big, take chances, and remember—don’t ask for permission if “no” is not an option.

Maintain personal power.

Having “gas in the tank and money in the bank” gives individuals resources and flexibility and therefore more choices regarding where they live, work, and what they do with their life. Always remember, truly powerful people know they are powerful and don’t need to visibly show it.

Choose your battles carefully.

Sometimes we spend a lot of time and effort trying to make people happy who will never be happy! Not everyone will like you. Accept those who do, and move on.

Perfect the “art” of communication.

Having expert communication skills is vital to success as a leader. Some of the world’s greatest leaders are where they are because they talk about their ideas in a way that speaks to the emotions and aspirations of others. Remember to be sensitive about who you communicate with, what the message is, and how it should best be communicated. 

Appreciate and empower followers.

Good followers make leadership look easy, so don’t overlook their contribution to your success. Everyone wants to feel that they count for something and are important to someone. Trust is the cornerstone between leaders and followers.

Set priorities and enjoy the journey.

Not everything worth doing must be done to the highest level possible. Some things just need to get done, and having clearly identified priorities can help make this distinction. Also, too much of our time and energy is directed at meeting others’ priorities. Don’t put off what really matters.

Carol J. Huston taught in the School of Nursing from 1982–2019 and served as its director from 2010–15. She has authored seven textbooks on leadership and management, published more than 100 articles in professional journals, and presented at more than 300 conferences worldwide. After publishing The Road to Leadership, she published The Road to Positive Work Cultures, which features 10 strategies people can use to create a better work environment. She recently co-authored her first children’s book, When Little Girls Dream.