I am sitting in a laundromat in the Mitte area of Berlin, sipping a double espresso macchiato, perusing the Berliner Morgenpost even though I don’t understand German, waiting for my five days of travel-weary clothes to dry and thinking about leadership: the leadership of countries, of small businesses like this laundromat, and of lives.
On the face of it, leadership is a straightforward proposition. Arguably all progress, all forward movement (and some backward) requires leadership. Without the function, the lemmings march into the sea, the herd trudges in circles, the troops and teams lose the battles, and eventually, society turns in on itself. Implicit in this thought is that leadership is a rarefied function, that it’s the 1% of the 1% that lead us. Some leaders are elected, for both right and wrong reasons. Some get put in the job as a consequence of adverse selection. They are simply the last man or on the sadly rare occasion, the last woman standing. And in some cases, they end up leading because they share DNA. Daddy led so Junior should be able to too. Regardless of the means or motivation, where this minority of leaders comes from actually does not matter that much because I’m going to argue that the leaders that really matter are not them, the leaders that really matter are us.
The leadership opportunity for each of us applies in every aspect of our lives. We should not wait to be led, we should lead. Hate your job? Lead yourself to a new one. That’s right, don’t hope, don’t wish, don’t whine. Get off your ass and starting leading. Leading means defining motivating goals, setting viable courses, holding others (in this case our Self) accountable to the agreed upon tasks. Leading means having courage, taking risk, embracing sacrifice. It means telling the truth (in this case to our Self). It means embracing the fact that the only action that results in a different reaction (desired outcome) is that of leadership.
Like your job but want to love it? Want your team, department or company to be better at what it does, including giving you what you want? Lead the way. Any organization works better when its members are aligned on the goals, on the strategies, and on what their individual roles are to make it all happen. And that includes the essential but mushy stuff like culture and values. Creating that extrinsic and intrinsic alignment is certainly the responsibility of the organization’s explicit leaders, but the truth is it is the opportunity and even responsibility of everyone on the team. No one is exempt from the task of stepping forward with ideas, with questions, with concerns regarding where misalignment might be occurring or opportunities might lie. I have been a CEO and president of many organizations throughout my career. When people ask me what the primary function of leadership is I say “to remind people”; to remind all employees where we are, where we want to go, why we want to go there, how we’re going to get there and what piece of the task list they own. And the truth is the more leaders I have on the team the less reminding I have to do and the more fundamentally competent and successful the organization and the individuals in it will be. That is a fact.
Now people challenge that equation with statements like “Too many leaders can be a problem. Every organization needs foot soldiers.” I call that poppycock. The hesitance of humans to lead will take care of the problem. You can never have enough leaders because there never will be enough leaders.
Years ago a friend and I were discussing the challenges of leadership and management and how best to motivate and extract the greatest contributions and growth from employees. His prescription was remarkably simple. He said, “I just ask them whether they are ahead of me or behind me.” So that’s a question for each of us. Are we ahead of our bosses or behind? Are we leading or following? If you don’t like that question how about something a little more metaphorical? Are you on your toes or on your heels?
Another related adage that I’ve spewed to hundreds of employees and job seekers over the years: “The fastest way to become an owner is to act like an owner.” If you want to make more money, you want more responsibility, you want more of anything, don’t act like an employee on your heels, act like an owner on your toes. Don’t just do your job, do whatever it takes to advance the value of the organization, first for the customer and second for your fellow employees. That’s what leaders do.
Again, if we want the outcome or trajectory of things to change, then we have to change from being followers to leaders. We have to grab the mantle and be willing to do the hard work whether we’re talking about the professional or the personal, whether we talking about improving our relationship with our job and company or our relationship with our significant other, siblings or kids. Things don’t change because we want them to, they change because we lead.
Got kids? Want them to grow up and be successful, where success is defined by rock-solid self-esteem, an abundance of authentic and caring relationships, meaningful careers, happiness through and through? Then lead them there. Don’t hope it works out. Don’t rely on the teachers. Don’t rely on chance. Rely on your leadership. The same damn steps apply. Define your goals and aspirations for your kids with your kids. Set a course, with milestones. Develop approaches and paths. And then make them happen.
Your dynamic with your significant other not quite right? Simmering misunderstandings, lack of satisfaction, a nagging feeling of being out of alignment? The three options are to stand still, to run away or to lead your Selves back together. Standing still does worse than getting you nowhere. It becomes a doom loop of that inner voice as a constant reminder of just how bad it all is. The dark gets darker. Running away is certainly an option, but it comes at a huge cost in multiple forms. And where exactly are you running to? Greener grass? The leadership approach, on the other hand, is relatively cheap and remarkably productive. Its only real cost is that of finding and expending courage. But it really is the only way to get your dysfunctional relationship back to being functional.
The need for more of us to lead applies to work and home. And it applies to the community too. Many of us in America and even beyond our borders are none too thrilled at the state of things. We’re worried about the present and freaked out about the future, for our Selves, for our families, and for future generations. This is not a partisan position, it applies to all of us. Few of us are happy with the current and projected outcomes for our society. So what do we do? We can sit on the sidelines and wait for the coach or quarterback to win the game. We can hope that somehow the current leaders come to their senses or that the other side, whomever they might be, comes to theirs. Wishful thinking is just that, wishful. The only way to change the future is to lead in the present. Thomas Friedman recently wrote a piece in the New York Times that seemingly was about the Las Vegas shootings but was really about the need for the leadership of us by us. He writes:
“Forget about persuading these legislators. They are not confused or underinformed. They are either bought or intimidated. Because no honest and decent American lawmaker would look at Las Vegas and Puerto Rico today and say, ‘I think the smartest and most prudent thing to do for our kids is to just do nothing.'... So there is only one remedy: Get power.”
Get power, act like a leader, become a leader. Let’s go back to Berlin. The horror of World War II, the horrifying genocide, and even Germany’s divide arguably occurred because of a lack of citizen leaders. But its reunification and the collapse of the wall was almost completely due to the people. Not the so-called leaders, the elected officials, but the people. They led. And the outcome changed.