The key to leadership is to stop trying
I’ve known a lot of leaders through the years. I’ve also met many people who wanted to be leaders. They were in the pursuit of leadership. The difference between these two groups of people is not what you think it is.
One common idea is that leaders have a certain set of traits that they share. This is true to a degree, but it doesn’t clearly set apart leaders from the rest. Another idea is that leaders are leaders because of their position or title or through happy circumstances–they inherited it. That’s true sometimes, but you can find plenty of leaders who lead apart from title or position. There are also many who started from very humble beginnings without anything given to them.
So what is the difference between leaders and non-leaders? The fundamental thing I’ve seen is an attitude. However they come by it, leaders carry a responsibility for leading others, an organization or a movement. They carry that responsibility as an attitude that comes from within. Non-leaders aspire to have the responsibility or respectability that they see coming with leadership, but they lack the attitude that marks them as a leader. The key to leadership is to stop trying. Instead, get out and take responsibility for making something happen that benefits others.
The How of Leadership
How do leaders exercise leadership? This is another little-understood part of the process. Many people think that a leader gives an order and others follow it. But that’s not leadership! That is actually ruling over others. It’s been going on a long time. Rulers give orders or commands that others follow. A true leader leads through influence.
In ancient times (and even to this day), rulers had the authority and when they gave the order, people followed it. Leaders are the ones who often advise rulers, but they also might be far from the halls of power. You can find them wherever things are happening through influence, example or persuasion rather than coercion. Leaders are invested in seeing things happen and they take responsibility for making things move. They usually rely on communication that is encouraging or inspiring.
Leaders have a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for. Even if they don’t have a role of formal authority, they carry themselves with authority because they take responsibility in their own area of concern. Non-leaders pursue leadership as a prize or as something that is outside of themselves. Unless they grow into the realization of the responsibilities of leadership–and embrace them–they remain one who chases the elusive dream of being a leader.
Dwight Eisenhower is famously known as the leader of the D-Day invasion in World War II and then as the 34th President of the United States from 1953-1961. He was an outstanding military leader, and as President we could call him the “ruler”, though Americans don’t like to talk that way. He’s a fascinating study in his own right (check out Jean Edward Smith’s bio here). But the lesser-known leader who Eisenhower looked to as a guide in his office was a man named Sherman Adams.
Adams was from New Hampshire and had a strong personality, but he also knew how to get things done. Eisenhower chose him as his Chief of Staff in the White House and he was the secret power within the administration. Many would say that he exerted more influence in the cabinet than the Vice President, Richard Nixon. Even after he left Washington and returned to small town New Hampshire, he continued living and acting as a leader with a variety of causes he believed in.
A different example of leadership is a young woman who grew up in Pakistan named Malala Yousafzai. Though her story has become well-known, she had little power or standing as an 11-year old girl who began writing a blog about her life under the Taliban. She gained confidence and a voice and used it to bring attention to the poor treatment of women and girls in her community. A gunman shot her on a bus when she was 15 in an attempt to kill her and silence her voice, but she survived and went on to raise her voice–and international awareness–to the lack of education and opportunities for young women under the Taliban. Through her book I am Malala she led a movement that inspired many. Her leadership is an example of pursuing a passion and being unstoppable despite adversity.
In what area are you exercising leadership? Maybe it’s a personal passion of yours or a position you have grown into where you see you can make a difference. The key is to keep leading, influencing and passing on your experience and vision to others. If you aren’t clear where or even if you are leading, do yourself a favor and don’t pursue leadership. Instead, start where you are and take responsibility for speaking up and making a difference in an area that matters to you. Let’s keep up the connection and grow your leadership over time.