I was surprised to hear two people I regard as outstanding leaders declaring recently that they don’t see themselves as leaders at all. One is a sole trader who believes that a leader must have a team to lead and the other considers that to be a leader one must have a sufficiently weighty title.
This left me wondering how many other ‘leaders’ are holding themselves back because of similar views.
I see leadership as a state of mind, a way of thinking and acting, not something imposed by age, or having a team or a fancy title. Choosing to see yourself as a leader is the freedom to openly express a feeling or an idea, take a risk, pass on skills or knowledge, to stand for public office or simply something you believe in or initiate a conversation or an event, like a family gathering for Christmas.
I first saw myself as a leader at the tender age of 4 when I taught my older brother to tie his shoelaces. I went on to dizzying leadership heights in primary school when I was chosen to thank visiting speakers on behalf of my class, sing solos at concerts and do talking parts in school plays. I was the one who was always throwing their hand-up in the air when I knew an answer and happy to speak up at any opportunity. Then along came the hormonal avalanche of adolescence and with it, plummeting self-belief caused by bad habits such as comparing myself to others (and always coming off second best). My sense of being a leader didn’t re-emerge until I was well into adulthood.
Now I see leaders as people who are up to something interesting in their lives, something that has a positive impact either directly or indirectly on others. Leaders are willing to learn new things and keep practicing until they get the results they want. Many writers, songwriters and artists fall into this category, as do people in all walks of life. Even kids - ever watched leaders emerge among groups of children? Often they are the ones who don’t have to say a word.
Leaders are not all extroverts. In one of my recent mentoring workshops I proposed that, in a professional context, the role of a leader is to communicate the vision and inspire others to follow. A participant felt this inferred that the only people who can lead are naturally charismatic types who always lead from the front. Her view was that leaders ‘mobilise’ others and they might do this from behind, or alongside or even from below. I like this idea. This short UTube clip is a great example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ
We don’t all have to be leaders but we can all choose to believe in our capacity to lead. Knowing that you can lead doesn’t mean you always have to take the lead. You can choose to lead and you can choose to be led. I love conducting workshops and I also love being a participant in workshops where I can learn from others.
When I use the phrase “I mentor and coach leaders” to describe what I do, I don’t mean that I only work with CEO’s or Chairs of Boards. Some of my clients do have important titles and some don’t. But anyone who has the courage to learn more about themselves and seek guidance and support to optimise their performance is a leader in my eyes. A hallmark of a true leader is the willingness to learn to confidently and wisely contribute to others. They are the people who come to workshops on mentoring or coaching for leaders.
Everyone has their own take on what makes a leader. If you look online or visit the business section of any book store you'll find a vast array of different definitions and viewpoints.
Two key characteristics of leaders are the ability to make meaningful connections and integrity.
The Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership uses the term Connective Intelligence (CQ) in their blog ‘Follow the Leader’:
‘All leaders need loyal followers. Even in the social media space, the number of followers someone has builds their reputation as a thought leader in their field….A leader retains followers by developing relationships with them. This relationship is not built by giving out promotions and financial incentives, but by the content of their conversations. Conversations, one-on-one, or across project teams and cultural boundaries and in team meetings - whether face-to-face or virtual - are key to leadership.
We call this Connected Intelligence (CQ). CQ is the key to successful leadership in the 21st century’.
The IECL’s guest blogger, Commander Grant Dale of the Royal Australian Navy, reiterates this:
‘It was four years ago that the Navy embarked on a major cultural change program and a key element of this was the development of leadership and ethics. Early on in this initiative we got rid of a competency based leadership framework and replaced it with a more conceptually based leadership framework that flows equally across all levels of leadership within the organisation. What we really wanted our people to clearly understand and accept, was that leadership is absolutely not about rank or positional power but a matter of character, integrity and meaningful connections with the people around you.’
Integrity was the theme of a 9 month leadership program I participated in a few years ago. I learned that integrity is ‘honouring your word’. In other words, doing what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. To be leaders, we learned, was to act with integrity at all times, including always being on time, not chopping and changing schedules but sticking to something you said you would attend, even if you get a better offer later; obeying the law (driving within the speed limit, only crossing the road on the green light) and stepping up, such as being the one to wipe down wash basins in public toilets. Very challenging to maintain, but living a life of integrity (although we all slip up at times) certainly makes life calmer, simpler and less stressful.
If we can’t count on leaders to set an example, who can we count on?
So if you don’t see yourself as a leader but would like to, my suggestion is: Change your mind!
Let us know what happens.