Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of
their ability to empower others.
Leadership is a burden. That is the truth. It is far easier to follow. It is even easier to do nothing at all. I remember, when I was a little kid, hearing other kids say that they wanted to grow up to be president. I didn’t. Of course, I was a girl born in the 60’s so, as kids they say these days, that wasn’t even a thing. But even if I had been born male, being president sounded horrible back then. There was a war going on. There was marching in the streets. The evening news was a nightmare in black and white. Some kids’ dads got drafted. We had to wait in line forever to get gas for our car. There was litter everywhere and, for some reason, I thought the president was even in charge of taking care of that problem. So why do it at all? Why take a leadership role in anything? I have pondered this question repeatedly over the course of my life. I have been a school administrator. I have known mayors, police chiefs, commanding officers, company presidents, non-profit executives, and superintendents. I believe every one of them would agree that leadership is one of the most rewarding and the most challenging parts of their life. Bringing together and mobilizing a group of diverse stakeholders to realize a shared vision and carry out a worthy mission is both exhilarating and daunting. And yet, I think we all should step up and lead when and where we are called. I also believe that every person has the capacity to lead.
Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
A couple months ago, a former student of mine, Erin, told me that she wished she had taken my Leadership class in high school. While it warmed my heart (and fed my ego) to think that someone thought that they missed out by not taking one of my classes, I had to tell her the truth: “Obviously you didn’t miss anything because you are doing just great.” And that was the truth. I wish she could see herself through my eyes or the eyes of her family and friends, because then she would know with absolute certainty that she is a powerful leader. She loves fiercely and gives generously. She believes in her community, and when she says “we take care of our own”, it is not some trite slogan. It is a truth she lives.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish
if you don’t care who gets the credit.
-Harry S. Truman
On May 11, Erin had the thinnest glimmer of an idea to help one of her oldest and dearest friends raise the money to achieve her bucket list. She knew that the clock was ticking. She rolled up her sleeves, opened her contacts list and started talking. Now, had she taken my class 25 years ago, I would have advised her to take a step back. Six weeks is nowhere near enough time to plan, advertise and hold a 5K benefit run especially if you have never put one on before. To give her the greatest chance of a successful learning experience, I would have tried to manage her expectations for what could be accomplished in such a short time. But this wasn’t a school assignment that had to be completed in a semester, and I wasn’t her teacher. This was an act of love in a race against the clock, and I am older and wiser than I was when I was a teacher. So, when she began planning, I put my cautions in check and cheered her on. And watching her leadership grow was a thing of beauty. Every day brought obstacles – permits, waivers, insurance, banking, advertising, registration, shirts, water stations, volunteers, and safety. Every little obstacle brought gifts: generous donations from business, volunteers stepping up, classmates coming together and community organizations pitching in. She won’t take any credit for this, and it is not some false humility. Even if she did not learn it in a leadership class, she knows instinctively what the best leaders know: You do not accomplish anything on your own. She knows instinctively what the best leaders do: Give credit where credit is due and gratitude to those who step up.
If you want something bad enough, you will find a way.
If you don’t, you will find an excuse.
She reminded me of the amazing things that the teenagers accomplished in my class fueled by boundless enthusiasm, and unfettered by the constraints of excessive caution that comes with life experience. She reminded me that leadership is a skill you can develop at any time in your life given enough passion, purpose, and persistence. Here are the lessons I learned (or relearned) from Erin’s Leadership Class:
- Every single person has the capacity to be a leader. Not everyone has the will. When you see the light of leadership ignite, be the one who fans the flames.
- If you find your passion and an obstacle, you have a breeding ground for leadership. In the words of Jim Rohn, if you want something bad enough, you will find a way. If you don’t, you will find an excuse.
- Bring people together and make them feel like the critical member of the team that they are.
- Give credit where credit is due. In the words of Erin, no one fights alone.
- Model gratitude. You cannot thank people enough. You cannot thank enough people.
- Take care of your team. People will work their fingers to the bone for love. They will only comply temporarily out of fear or consequence.
- Give people a reason to care. Every person wants to make a difference.
- Be a servant leader, not a leader with servants. Roll up your sleeves and do the hard work alongside your team. Don’t ask people to do what you are not willing to do.
- Ask for help. People want to contribute. In the words of Max Lucado, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
- Accept help. You are going to need it. Everybody does.
- When you make a mistake, own it and then make it right. You need to model what you expect in others: growth mindset, and accountability.
- Be clear about your values. As Peter Drucker says, leadership is not just doing things right. It is doing right things.
- Every leader has to make the hard decisions. There will always be someone who does not agree with your decision. Even if someone is angry with your decision, you can sleep well at night as long as you did the right thing.
- Have a strong inner compass. You can be flexible and open, and still be very clear about what you stand for and what you will accept.
- Know when to push. Know when to pull. Know when to lean. Know when to lift.
Leadership is a burden. That is a fact. But it is a burden worth bearing. Find your passion, refuse to accept the obstacles, gather up your team, and change somebody’s world. You can do it. Erin did.
Leadership in Style
(1/320 sec., f/4, ISO 320, 55 mm)