What makes a leader?

LeadershipIt can be a bit nebulous, leadership. People often assume the title based on a role they hold. A position they’ve aspired to. The pinnacle of a career – leader of people and their charting their own course. Yet, a title alone, a position, is nothing more than that. Being named a leader doesn’t automatically bestow upon you some magical fairy dust where people fall in line behind you. A leader is infinitely more than that.

I’m fairly certain that those who study birth order characteristics find leadership qualities in firstborns. Often, they naturally rise and take charge of situations within the sibling ranks. They create the rules, the systems, the natural order of life among their family and peers. Once in school, they might rise and do the same, taking on leadership roles within the student ranks. Once we leave the cocoon of our nuclear families and school, it’s a whole other ballgame.

While firstborns might naturally be drawn to leader roles, they don’t hold the exclusive rights to it. Traditionally, as anyone grows in their career they grow in terms of power which likely translates to having direct reports. You can watch any old TV show and see examples of a “boss.” I think of Lou on the Mary Tyler Moore show, Captain Steubing on the Love Boat, or how about recent example, Miranda Bailey, the Chief on Grey’s Anatomy. All were in a position of authority and operated as a “boss” to one degree or another.

What the traditional or television versions of a “boss” don’t convey is what it truly takes to lead people.  A “boss” likely has more the mindset of managing rather than leading. I’m a student of Brené Brown and tirelessly read her books, diving deep into the personal reflection that surrounds her work. Leadership isn’t having people do what you tell them to do. It’s not espousing your system of belief and expecting a team to fall in line without question, like lemmings into the sea. It doesn’t happen automatically. That’s being a dictator. Leadership is full of nuance.

Leadership requires vulnerability. The willingness to be open and honest about how what you’re experiencing, even when it sucks. It requires transparency. Having personal values that guide the way you go about your life, at work or at home. Leadership requires courage, which, Brené says in her work, you can’t get to without vulnerability.

Anyone can be a leader, whether you’re leading yourself or leading others. People are seen as leaders out of respect for the way they go about their lives, whether in or outside of work. Leaders are willing to wrestle with the hard decisions, to face their fears and do it anyways. They create boundaries about what’s ok and not ok.  They demonstrate integrity, having the hard conversations, bringing other people with you instead of expecting compliance. If you require compliance, you’re most likely going to see resentment instead.

This notion that you’re not letting someone lead? Or another person demanding that you let them be the leader? That’s not on you, that’s on them. In and of itself that sentiment falls flat. Nobody has to give you permission to lead. By the characteristics you demonstrate in the way you go about your life and treat others you show that you’re a leader. In the same vein, you can lead yourself every day of your life. You don’t need followers in order to be a leader. That’s true whether you’re at work or at home.

The notion that the leader at home or work has to be a man? Well, maybe it is a man. But just as easily, it could be a woman. Or it could be both partners. Being a leader is the way you carry yourself, not based on sex or position. We’re getting better about that, but there amongst more conservative /traditional workplaces and homes, the notion of the male leader is still espoused. It’s something that needs to change. Leadership, done well, can be a bit of a dance, where two people complement each other, both owning their part.

Which is all any of us can truly do in life, own our part. Bring our best game every day. Show up, do the work, be willing to be vulnerable. Lead ourselves first and if given the opportunity, lead others with integrity and courage. And keep showing up and doing the same. It’s our journey, and I’m on it with you.


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