How to become a successful Leader, and how to get started from where I am right now?

Humans admire successful leaders. From the well-known names of history to specific people in our industry, or maybe even inside the company we are currently working for, there are people we simply admire. If I asked you who holds such a special place for you, at least one person’s name would pop up in your mind within the first 10 seconds, wouldn’t it?

I'm writing this article for the Engineering Leadership Special Interest Group (ELSIG) of the Software Development Forum (SDForum) in Silicon Valley. So I’ve decided to write about leadership, a topic which is very dear to my heart. You’ll understand more once you get to know me.

In my managerial hi-tech career I’ve had to lead teams of over 100 engineers across Silicon Valley, US East Coast and India towards putting out the best possible version of Network Operating Systems under tremendous time and budget pressure. Those of you who are at VP or director level can relate to this. What had never been done before needed to be approached boldly. And I’m sure your responsibilities may even be more challenging and exciting. Yes, excitement is an important driver isn’t it?

Maybe you have dreamed of engaging into a bigger leadership role at your present level in your career, wanting to become a little bit more like some of the inspiring leaders you’ve observed in your industry or company. I have at least, to be completely honest with you. I’ve wanted to become a successful leader myself for a long time. Not necessarily to play at the same level as the ones I admired, but at least become a better leader than I considered myself to be at that time. And I’ve struggled, as you can imagine. So, did that mean that true leadership wasn’t for me?

With your permission let me make in innocent guess here: I could assume that the people who have become successful leaders in our surrounding environment (i.e. company, industry, personal sphere, …) have all had a clear vision, clear goals and somehow were either incredibly skilled or fortunate to be on a path filled with success after success. It somehow looks like it, doesn’t it?

If you’re like me, you may object intellectually that this assumption isn’t reality. So how did these successful leaders get to where they are today? What is it that you or I had to or have to do differently compared to before this moment of decision?

Maybe you are an influential leader already and are merely reading this out of curiosity (which successful leaders typically do) or you are experiencing some resistance at this point in your life and I may simply share with you what I have learned over time which would have made life so much easier for me back then.

The first thing you should know about me is that I’ve made many mistakes and learned greatly from them. The truth is that I didn’t even have a clear vision of what successful leadership was really about. I’m not embarrassed to say today that a few years back I equated “successful” with “me” being successful, with “me” being “significant” (yes, let me cut right to it) in just the ways I saw successful leaders as being people “significant” to me in my eyes.

If I could only share one key insight with you, it would be that I’ve learned that successful leaders don’t focus on their own significance but on the significance and success of what they stand for. What they envision is so much bigger than their individuality in their own eyes. That’s why they succeed in making things so much better for everyone.

Ok, but let’s get back to where you and I may be right now. So can we grow towards the character, charisma and passion that come with the role of a successful leader? Yes, you probably know intellectually that this is indeed a possibility. How to get started though when one doesn’t have a clear vision, clear goals and the necessary skills (yet)?

I’ve learned a few crucial insights through personal experience, which I’d like to share with you in order to assist in whatever way may be useful on your journey if you choose so. In summary the most crucial ones I believe are below:

- a clear direction you feel compelled moving into will do perfectly in the absence of a fully developed vision; you can refine and make things concrete along the path

- get in touch with the person you want to become; catch yourself acting like him/her every once in a while and rejoice yourself; be passionate about it

- getting started is not a matter of skills but of clarity of the path you want to pursue and the level of motivation for yourself; have absolute clarity of why you want to be on this path and what you’ll need to give up if you don’t

- take one step at a time instead of overwhelming yourself; don’t try to swallow the entire mountain or elephant in one bite; let things unfold, make one thing better than it is today through your own action and keep doing it consistently

- adopt a “responsibility vs. victim” attitude; whatever happens around you, understand that you still have the freedom of choice of how to respond

- cultivate your value system; develop integrity, trust and passion for what you do and for the people you’re interacting with

Skills of course are important also to become a successful leader. The key to really understand here is that they are not what is needed first on this journey. Speaking in front of a large audience, speaking up in a tense meeting and disagreeing for the sake of something bigger at stake, you name it. The truth is that you’ll acquire all the needed skills along your path as I have and am still doing.

In fact, this is a never-ending journey of personal and professional fulfillment once we’ve understood what life really is about.

About: Corinne Rattay works with senior hi-tech executives on strategic leadership, breakthrough communication and effective execution, helping her clients to achieve extraordinary results. She can be reached at or at You may also like to visit the SDForum ELSIG blog at