I was sitting in a half-filled auditorium, waiting for a mindfulness seminar to start. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing, getting in some mindfulness practice. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t shut out the sound of the conversation between two people sitting behind me, a woman and a man in their mid-twenties. They were talking about their career plans.
“I really enjoy shaping policies that reduce homelessness, and then influencing politicians and bureaucrats to adopt them” the young woman said. “So, what do you think you’ll do next” asked the man. “I’m not sure” she replied. “The next obvious job for me is to step up to manager role but I’m not sure I’m ready to be a leader just yet.”
The young woman’s words intrigued me. She was implying that as far as she was concerned, leadership is a position that you are anointed into. Even though her current job seemed to require her to influence outcomes (reducing homelessness) and people (bureaucrats and politicians), which at first glance seems a reasonable working definition of leadership.
Leadership is Verb
This exchange stuck with me because it highlights a common misunderstanding about leadership, that it is a role or a position. I have a different view. Leadership is a verb, an action. It’s something you do, not something you are appointed into.
There’s a mind experiment that you can do that supports my proposition. Think of how many instances you have seen of people exercising leadership despite the fact that they hadn’t been appointed into position of authority. I can think of plenty, some of them famous. Consider the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who sought to influence millions of white Americans with his I have a Dream speech. Or Eddie Mabo, the Australian indigenous activist whose actions helped overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius.
Now think of examples where you have seen people appointed into so-called leadership roles who failed to exercise leadership. It shouldn’t be hard. A recent one comes to mind where the US President Donald Trump refused to condemn violent assaults by white supremacists.
This mind experiment proves that leadership is independent of formal role, position or authority. It is instead an action that you take, the product of a deliberate choice to do something.
Leadership is a Choice
In which case, you become a leader the moment that you choose to be. It's the moment you authorise yourself to influence and mobilise other people. You become one when you make a stand, or do something that feels risky, like speaking up, to ensure that the right things happen at work or in your community. You become a leader when you act in ways that show concern beyond your own narrow interests, placing the interests of others also at the heart of your attention and action.
Reflecting again on that overheard conversation in the auditorium, I am hopeful that more of us can appreciate that we don’t have to wait for the world to tell us that we are a leader before we can exercise leadership. We have too many opportunities and challenges in our organisations, communities and our world to wait for that. We each need to make our own choice step into leadership.