To Be a Leader

The elevator doesn’t always go to the top when I’m stressed and busy but this week I had one of those moments of insight that ended up explaining a lot.

I realized that leadership means different things to different people. The variance in their interpretation may be the result of age, education, experience or perhaps it may be about genetics or gender.  Likely there isn’t ever a right or wrong – there is just different – and that’s okay.

For example, under my current contract I’m working for a wonderful man for whom leadership is very much about logic. It occurred to me this week, as we got caught up in a tug of war conversation, that for me leadership isn’t always about logic, research, facts and figures. It is instead much more about emotion and heart.

Ultimately of course, leadership needs to be about both emotion and logic so there is no right and wrong. However acknowledging and understanding the underlying differences in our approach made them much easier to accept and appreciate.

Anyway, that understanding also got me thinking about what else it is I value that might be different from those of other leaders. At its very core, what do I think leaders should do?

One of my favourite leadership quotes is from Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him . . . But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, “We did it ourselves.”

To get to that kind of success, I think leadership will be about emotion and inspiration and is therefore about heart - our own heart as well as the hearts of others. It is about understanding and recognizing that each and every one of us has gifts and talents to contribute. A leader’s job is to provide an environment that will empower everyone to envision a better way and to help them tap their passions, talents, skills, and creativity to move toward that vision.

Part of that challenge is finding an appropriate balance of flexibility to harness those talents. None of that will happen without a clear understanding of the overall vision and values of the organization or business. Once the vision and values are embraced, clear frameworks will be essential. Then of course a good leader will be the one who just gets out of the way.

Many people think that leaders are born or developed. My experiences with leadership suggest that may not be the case. When a person puts leadership into practice they are really engaging in an activity - not focusing on one person leading the way while the rest follow. This means leadership can and needs to happen at all levels of an organization. When an issue or trend surfaces and an individual acts to address it, that’s leadership.

Today’s organizations and communities need to create the space and environment to encourage and foster leadership. When the space is created, individuals can take part in the conversations and be the catalysts for responding to challenging and complex issues. They can ask the tough questions, surface underlying root causes, and ultimately become change agents in their homes, organizations and communities.

I also believe a leader is about having a vision and moving toward it even when the resources aren’t available.  So perhaps being a leader may ultimately be about courage. Courage to dream, courage to challenge existing paradigms, courage to work with others who view the world with lenses different from our own, courage to be honest about what we may intuitively know to be true as well as honest about what we don’t know, and courage to do what’s best for the greater good . . . even when it’s just plain hard. 

Posted on 11-29-09

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