You’re sitting in a room listening to a marketing presentation and something doesn’t feel right. As the presentation goes on you’re surprised that no one else seems to share your unease. It’s clear to you that the proposal will fail in its intentions and that there are very good reasons to object to the plan, but the presenter hasn’t factored in your concerns and others don’t appear to have noticed the issues you see as being obvious. As the presenter’s voice drones the clock ticks toward the hour, a decision is becoming eminent because the meeting will end at noon on the dot. You hear the chair ask, “Is there any more discussion before we take a vote?”
You’re driving down a highway and a traffic jam looms in front of you. As you crest a hill, there is a long line of vehicles filling the two lanes in front of you and you see an exit lane to your right leading to a road on which you’ve never driven before.
You’re talking with friends over coffee, and someone suggests you all go out to dinner. You’re on a tight budget, and have stopped charging meals on your credit card. Although you’re enjoying your friends, you don’t want to spend a lot of money after disciplining yourself to stay inside your financial goals for the month. Someone suggests a restaurant nearby. It’s far beyond your budget plan.
DECISION TO LEAD
"Leaders choose themselves"
If you look around, the opportunities to lead are as close as the minutia and tedium of daily life. The qualities of leadership are independent of the size of any task, and the decision to lead comes first to those who listen to their inner voice. We lead when it is no longer adequate for us to follow. That’s why an organizational chart is never truly accurate. Leaders choose themselves.
We tend to think of leadership as something extraordinary, a larger-than-life form of being in this world. We might think of names like Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Winston Churchill. Or we could think of a boss, a coach, or some other person conveyed with authority by a business, sports team or organization.
Leadership is often baked into a managerial job description, reflecting the position’s place in an organizational chart that assumes authority flows accordingly. But we all know intuitively that true leadership is a function of something else entirely. We have seen authentic leaders and they don’t consult a job description as they go through life. They appear to act from something innate that seems to be found within themselves independent of outside roles.
When we think of leadership, words like adventure, crisis, and struggle come to mind. In truth though, we are often challenged to lead in circumstances that are far from heroic. Most of the time we are not on a quest to summit Mt. Everest. More often we are nearer to a water cooler or a cubicle. In such a setting our leadership actions may seem to have few ramifications beyond the normal friction or lubrication of everyday living. Indeed, we might hardly call our actions leadership in any conventional sense of the word.
It is not natural to think of leadership as something ordinary and there is a very natural reason for that. Thinking of leadership as extraordinary gets us off the hook. It’s for someone else: Someone who makes more money, has a higher position on the organizational chart, talks louder, looks better, or has a more enviable status than the average person; in other words, anyone else. How could those of us who aren’t in those categories find ourselves leading?
As long as we think of leadership as an extraordinary endeavor, it has no power over us.
As long as we think of leadership as an extraordinary endeavor, it has no power over us; no call; no obligation. We can disappear into the fabric of our surroundings and revel in the safety of anonymity. But when we cede the leadership opportunity in an ordinary moment how do our lives play out? We remain silent in the meeting, spend two extra hours on the highway, and pay for a dinner we didn’t actually need – or even want. And the internal talk afterwards is hardly kind. We reject our weakness yet know that next time, unless we are different inside, nothing will be different outside. We are followers, and something feels inadequate to the challenge of living, even in the small spectrum of our days.
Where does leadership come from? The decision to lead is internal, but it shows up externally. We would be wrong though to think of it primarily as an outward activity. Leadership, like everything organic in nature comes from within and manifests over time. It begins with a seed inside, and sets down its hidden roots long before it appears to the rest of the world. Often even the greatest leaders began modestly, or failed to achieve the first goals they set for themselves. Like walking or riding a bicycle, what seems natural and easy in maturity may first appear as something awkward and difficult. In such things patience and time are our friends.
If you look around, the opportunities to lead are as close as the minutia and tedium of daily life. The qualities of leadership are independent of the size of any task and the decision to lead comes first to those who listen to their inner voice. We lead when it is no longer adequate for us to follow. That’s why an organizational chart is never truly accurate. Leaders choose themselves.
In making the decision to lead, courage, discipline and self-knowledge can be involved. So can fear, recklessness and the need for self-aggrandizement. We might find our inner motivations somewhere along a continuum that includes the many emotional needs and states between those extremes. Our leadership motivations may change many times as we grow in self-knowledge.
So, if you find yourself having made the decision to lead, you might begin to notice the call to leadership among the monotonies and intricacies of daily life. If you make the decision to lead, you might look for those small moments that offer opportunities to step up to almost meaningless challenges. You might explore not only the idea of leadership, but also its characteristics. You might notice how others decide to follow you or if they reject your leadership. You might become curious as to what led them to agree with you or what was missing from your approach that didn’t lead to the results you wanted.
At some point though, someone will surely follow, and, as you lead in that moment, you might look within for the world of shadows that comes along with leadership. What happens inside your inner being? Is there fear? Excitement? How does your ego get involved? What does it say in your internal dialogue? How does leadership affect your sense of self-worth? Do you sense power? Do you like it? Do you feel secure? Alone? Threatened? Superior?
The forces at play in invoking a leadership behavior are deeply personal and psychologically powerful, although the actions and situations that display leadership might initially take place in a world writ small. Still those small actions begin forming the habits of character that quell our self-defeating fears of standing out. And the act of leading can serve as a great teacher. We can discover much about ourselves and about others from taking on such a role.
Making a decision to lead doesn’t mean you have to go on an expedition to the North Pole. They are just as useful to explore in the smallest arenas of your life. Indeed, that is the very best place to start.
The forces at play in invoking a leadership behavior are deeply personal and psychologically powerful.
©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved
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