The Difference Between Management and Leadership
Over the past year I've been thinking about this a lot, in part inspired by the book Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track by Will Larson (review), which you should read. Now. In short, management is a career path; leadership is a mindset.
Leadership isn’t necessarily leading a team or having direct reports. It’s about having a growth mindset, seeing the forest through the trees, seeing the big picture. It’s about up-leveling those around you empowering them to learn and do better work. It’s about strong communication and consensus building cross-functionally.
In essence anyone can exhibit leadership qualities without being a manager. But how do you start? There's countless ways to do so. You can identify the friction points on your team (operational, technical, etc) and start putting together plans to turn those into points of strength. You can volunteer to mentor early career developers. If you're an engieer, you can be more intentional during code reviews. On your next 1:1 with your manager ask them to tell you what they think are the biggest existential issues facing the team; what keeps them up at night? Then ask how you can be part of the solution.
Thinking this way, regardless of your title, is a sure way to stand out. You will quickly notice managers giving you more opportunities to lead projects, peers, and processes.