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What it Means to be a Leader

9 Jan
Picture by Martin Schoeller for TIME

Picture from TIME.com

       Have you ever just sat and wondered what it truly means to be a leader? My guess is probably not. I recently purchased a book entitled Take the Lead by Betsy Myers and wasn’t even past the introduction before I had to set the book down and search my brain for the answer to this very question. What makes a leader a leader? 

       If we look we will see that there are leaders all around us. There are those people who we give the “leader” stamp of approval simply by the title that they carry or because they have commas after their name. For example, for those of you working in lower level positions, you likely consider your boss as a leader or another higher ranking employee as a leader. For those of you who are a CEO of a company, you likely look to the Board of Directors as your leader. For those of you who are associates in a law firm, you likely look to the partners that you work with as leaders. Outside of the workplace you may consider the following as leaders- The President of the U.S., the members in the US Congress, the Senior Commanders in the Army, etc.

       Outside of the stereotypical “leaders,” there are also those people who are followed by others simply because they have that Special Something that I will get to later. Take for example a few of TIME’s 2011 Most Influential People – Amy Poehler (Comedian/Actress), Geoffrey Canada (School Reformer), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook Founder), Jennifer Egan (Writer), Gabrielle Giffords (Congresswoman shot in AZ), and many more. Obviously there is something about these people that caught the attention of TIME and people around the world. They are not necessarily the president of a company or the leader of a nation, but they are leaders nonetheless.  

       So back to my question, what makes a leader a leader? I am of the opinion that leaders are all around us. They come in different shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, and languages. They can be your mom and dad, the professor that helped you get into Harvard Law School, the guy who helped you get your first job, your priest, or your grandfather. Leaders are not just those people automatically branded a “leader” by society. Leaders are those people that have that Special Something that makes you motivated to be better and to do more.

       So what is that Special Something that makes a leader a leader? This is a question I have always asked myself. Sure, we all like to think of ourselves as leaders in our field, but the truth is that not everyone can be a leader. You remember that saying there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians, right? While that saying rang true when you were a little kid, the same is true when you are in the working world. If everyone is a leader, who will be there to follow them?

        According to Myers, leadership starts with yourself. If you don’t know who you are, what your morals are, what you goals are, then how can you lead others? If you don’t have confidence in yourself as an individual, how can you expect others to have confidence in you? Myers believes that what makes a successful leader is being conscious of yourself and your impact on others. Myers states, “These leaders are willing to step back from the fray and get an accurate picture of what is working in their organization . . . they want to know why. . .”

       I think Myers is absolutely right. If you want to be a leader you have to know who you are as an individual and you have to be willing to look at why something didn’t work out the way it was planned to. Those people who have their heads in the clouds and have shortsighted thoughts are not leaders (or at least they won’t be leaders for long). This means that a leader is not necessarily the person who always seems to have the right answers. While we all assume that leaders are supposed to have the right answers all of the time, the fact of the matter is that not everyone can know everything about something. Even experts in a particular field have questions that they don’t know the answers to. So just because someone has an answer to a problem does not mean that  that person is a leader. Rather, a leader looks deeper into problems and asks, Why is our company making less money this year than last year? Why have our customers left us to go to a competitor? Why is our quality of work not as high as our competitors? Knowing yourself and being able to ask Why is the first step to becoming a leader.

       In addition to knowing yourself and being able to ask Why, Myers says that leaders have the ability to make other people feel good about themselves, about the work they have done, about the company they are working for, etc. Have you ever had a boss that criticized you all of the time, who always looked over your shoulder, or who always second guessed your conclusions? If you said Yes to any of those then I am sure you know how important it is to have someone in your life that makes you feel good about what you are doing. Why would you look up to someone as a leader when they made you feel crummy about yourself? You wouldn’t.

      If you take all of these characteristics (knowing yourself, being able to ask Why, and being able to make others feel good) can you name one person in your life that is not the stereotypical leader? The more I thought about what it really meant to be a leader the more I realized that there were leaders all around me that I never really thought of as “leaders.” It wasn’t because I didn’t idolize them or look up to them, it was because society has branded this image of a leader in my head and those certain people didn’t fall into that category. Reading the Introduction to Myers’ book made me realize that the leaders in my life are people the who inspire me, give me unyielding guidance, and who make me feel good about myself as a woman, a wife, and a worker, not the people who society expect to be my  leaders.

Who are your leaders? Do you possess the qualities of a leader according to Myers?