Have you ever organized a birthday party for your six-year-old, served as beer pong captain for your fraternity, taken charge of a department meeting at work, or headed up a sub-committee for the annual Halloween parade in your hometown? If so, then call it what you want, but technically, you’ve already found yourself in a leadership role—and chances are you’ll assume that selfsame role many more times throughout your life, as well.

Leadership roles just seem to somehow find us at some point, even for those of us who prefer to stay in the background. I remember when my mother—who was hardly a public figure—was unexpectedly elected president of the local symphony board (she wasn’t even running!), and she suddenly had to chair the board meetings, make speeches before each concert, organize fund raisers, supervise the paid staff, and generally represent the symphony throughout the community. Both my father and I were actually a teensy bit worried about how she would fare, but guess what she did? She took a few leadership classes, read some leadership books, and voila! A great symphony president was born. (I’m always amazed by how training actually works!)

However, rather than being caught off guard by a sudden leadership appointment, a la my mom, why not take a moment to consider your current leadership abilities. Do you project your strengths in the best possible light, or do you feel compromised and diminished by a lack of know-how—or perhaps a shortage of self-confidence? It’s time you gave yourself permission to become the natural leader you were born to be!

But why bother? Well, for starters, leadership roles can be fun when you possess the right skills, and, get this: leading is actually good for you! Our brains like to solve puzzles, create order out of chaos, and gain collaboration among tribal members (think modern-day committees and groups). We’re more or less instinctively programmed to step up to the plate when called upon to lead, and to do a bang-up job when we get there. (In a sense, my mom was simply accessing an adaptive, evolutionary human trait.)

So, if I’ve convinced you that your leadership skills are worthy of development, read on. The following seven characteristics of outstanding leaders are a perfect place to start.

1. Begin your leadership journey with a good roadmap
Great leaders will tell you that they didn’t randomly set out without a plan, so yes, it’s always best to begin with a bit of soul-searching. Ask yourself: What do you want out of your life and career? Is it money, attention, a distinguished title, a varied career, or a family and a house you’ll spend 40 years in? And if you have a significant other, get their input, too. They will most likely be traveling part way—or maybe even all the way—with you, and it’ll be a smoother journey if you’re both on the same page.

Once you’ve figured out where you’re going, create a success map: Your own personalized plan for reaching your career destination. (And, by the way, don’t stress if your plan isn’t laid out to a gnat’s eyelash—most of us aren’t that organized!) Just be sure your plan includes small steps you can take now to use your burgeoning leadership skills. (How about volunteering to lead a pro tem committee on creating neighborhood crosswalks?)

2. Fail with your head held high
Successful leaders are willing to take risks and make mistakes—sometimes, lots of ‘em. (Just read the biographies of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey, and you’ll see what I mean.) Do you remember Thomas Edison’s famous quote about his countless failures at inventing the light bulb before he finally found success? He said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” So, go beyond your fear of “being wrong” and tap into your rich instinctive sense of leadership.

Let’s face it: We all make mistakes, even as leaders, but consider each mistake you make an unplanned teaching opportunity. Focus on what you learned from the experience—not on being wrong. Then decide how you will do it differently next time. Above all else, don’t give up.

3. Be your own best publicist
Does this sound familiar to you: “If I work really hard, the right people will take notice.” Sorry, but…not exactly. Somewhere along the line, many of us were taught it was impolite—even obnoxious—to talk about our talents, and instead were instilled with the idea that humility wins over confidence. While this may be true in certain circumstances, it is important to note that a healthy dose of confidence is an important foundation to your success as a leader. (Watch a few YouTubes of Barack Obama or Indra Nooyi and you’ll see calm, self-possessed confidence in action.) When you allow yourself to be visible and receive credit for your achievements, you model leadership behavior—and that’s what others are more likely to notice and promote you for.

4. Identify your leadership mentors
Again, if you read a few biographies (which I suggest you do), you’ll see that every great leader can identify at least one great mentor. And it’s only logical: You wouldn’t climb an unknown mountain without a guide, would you? So why try to discover your company’s leadership paths without a mentor? If you can find the right mentor, they can offer you support, advice, encouragement, and insight. Look for someone who has the right positional power and experience. Look for someone who possesses natural empathy and enjoys helping others. Most importantly, look for someone you genuinely like and can get along with—mentoring relationships, when successful, often become lifelong friendships.

But how do you convince someone that you’re worth mentoring? Well, as with most things, it’s a two-way street—in other words, you’ve got to earn the privilege of having a mentor. It’s your job to make your mentor look good by standing out (in a good way), contributing positively and quantifiably to the success of the organization, going “above and beyond the call of duty” when tasked with assignments, and modeling exemplary employee behavior at all times.

5. Plan for continuous growth
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett recently told us, “If you’re not spending five hours a week learning, you’re being irresponsible.” Powerful words from powerful leaders! And Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Personal growth not only keeps your brain healthy and strong, it makes you more attractive and marketable for promotion. For this reason, your leadership path must include viable plans for increasing your knowledge base—especially, these days, in the technology arena. Continue your education by taking college classes or on-line courses, attending seminars, and reading on-line e-zines and industry journals. Volunteer in professional and community organizations. Don’t let Bill, Warren, or Ben down: Do whatever it takes to remain actively involved in your own personal educational development.

6. Grow your network
Great leaders know people—a lot of people—so step outside your comfort zone, fine-tune your smile and handshake, and get out there! Consider every person you encounter as a potential resource. Meet people in other departments, other buildings, other companies, and even other cities, states, and countries. Talk to people you don’t know well. Attend industry mixers. Join business and professional clubs and organizations. Here’s a tip to make it easier: Begin your networking by helping others. Provide people with information they need. Offer to assist with a challenging task, and ask for nothing in return (and mean it). Don’t focus on what you can get from people—concentrate on what you have to share. Your professional expertise, your conversational skills, the people you know, and your knowledge of your industry are all gifts you can give to others.

7. Keep your ear to the ground
“Did you hear that the assistant vice president is being transferred? And HR says they’re interviewing this week to fill her role as safety committee chair…” Is this idle break room chatter, or information you can use to your advantage? Don’t discount what may seem like “office politics” too hastily. The key is to listen closely and figure out where your personal goals and the company’s plans might converge. Part of being a strong leader is having the right information—and employing it for the betterment of both your career and the organization as a whole. (Selfish power plays generally don’t work in the long haul, so don’t be tempted to go there.) It’s likely that leadership opportunities are all around you, waiting to be discovered—you simply have to become more focused on finding them.

So there you go. Now get out there with your head held high and lead something! You’ll gain a tremendous boost of self-confidence, you’ll be contributing to the world on a meaningful level, and you’ll experience the indescribable joy that comes from personal accomplishment.

Author's Bio: 

Dudley is a professional trainer and keynote speaker, author, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, the largest public training company in the world. Dudley is a regularly featured speaker on the campuses of many universities, including Cal Poly, USC, UC Irvine, and UCLA, and the author of Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted. She speaks all over the world on a variety of topics, including body language, management and supervision skills, leadership, assertiveness, time management, stress management, communication, business writing and personal relationships.