Leadership is one of the most misunderstood and puzzling things. Last week I was with a group of team leaders at work discussing leadership. I felt that this is something we should challenge people do more of. Someone made the comment that “Ravi…you know that we can’t have everyone lead. We don’t have enough stuff for people to lead. If everyone was leading, we wouldn’t get work done and people would be fighting over projects to lead.” It was as if the world only has so much room for leaders. I find this notion silly. The world needs more leaders. The world DESPERATELY needs more leaders. The reason we have the problems we see in the world (e.g. rampant disease, poverty, war) is that too few people choose to step up, speak out and act in a way that helps others and inspires others to do the same.
In most situations I’d say that a small fraction of people have the desire to step into leadership roles and fewer still take the steps needed to rise to the occasion. I’ll take a wild guess and say that even in a hyper-competitive environment like a top-tier university or leading corporate environment…fewer than 10% of people (and even this is an upper bound) take advantage of regular opportunities to display leadership. Most just coast by and assume someone else will lead them or make the decision for them.
The problem starts with the reality that most people are actually confused with what leadership is to begin with. Leadership is not about managing people or being in a position of authority – like a CEO or some corporate managing director. In fact, leadership is most powerfully displayed when one acts without authority and leads people who DO NOT HAVE TO work for them. The most effective and memorable leaders in history did not actually have people who worked for them (e.g. Gandhi, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, etc.). They displayed leadership in their thoughts, words and actions and this congruence created the spark that rose others to act in kind.
Another problem is that people get tricked up with how to display leadership. They think it is about picking the right project or schmoozing with the right people. In reality, leadership often happens with seemingly small actions and decisions. Leadership happens when you break a deadlock over where to go for dinner with your friends. Leadership happens when you make the decision to take the right fork in the trail (instead of going straight) while out on a hike with friends or family. Leadership happens when you take the initiative to drive your family or friends to a new restaurant, park or museum. Leadership happens when you choose to try busting out a handstand in the middle of a yoga class – even if it means you might fall over – instead of just hanging out in a standing split or some other “safe” pose. Leadership is when you speak up during a meeting to voice your opinion on an important issue. Leadership is also listening actively to others and showing that you respect their insights as much as your own.
The world needs more leaders, not less. This isn’t a game of musical chairs with limited opportunities to lead. I would love to have the amazing problem of seeing too many people stepping out of their comfort zone, leading their families – friends – co-workers – loved ones into the future.
If you want to start leading, right now take a few minutes and brainstorm a dozen little things you can do to show leadership in your everyday life this week. Here are a few examples:
- Offer to drive co-workers to lunch
- Try a new pose in yoga class (or go further than you ever have before)
- Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while
- Hold the door open for someone, and smile while you do it
- Give a sincere compliment to someone you don’t know
- Speak up in class or during meeting to voice your opinion
- Take advantage of an opportunity to present your ideas to co-workers or classmates
- Arrange fun weekend plans for you and your friends/family
Circle three things on the list that really speak to you, and do them RIGHT AWAY.
Start leading in seemingly small ways. Do this on a daily basis and as often as your can. It is critically important. It develops your internal leadership muscle so that when larger and more meaningful opportunities to lead appear, you’ll immediately step out of your comfort zone and take them on. Start small and watch some major change happening over the longer term. Also remember that leadership is a transferable action – that is to say, by taking action you’ll inspire other to do the same. By choosing to speak up in class, you’ll inspire other students to do the same. By taking on a more challenging yoga pose, you’ll inspire others by showing them what is possible. Don’t hesitate, do it now.