If you ask whether someone is a leader, you seem to asking about a relatively permanent state, like asking whether a person is a doctor or a lawyer. If you are a father or a mother, you occupy that role for life.
But being a leader is not really like this anymore.
We life in an age of guerrilla warfare when a motley crew, thrown together on the spur of the moment, can often defeat the greatest Generals. It’s like being a leader in sports. One minute you’re in the lead and the next you’re not. Leadership, like guerrilla warfare, is much more transient than being a parent, lawyer or doctor.
At one time, leadership was about dominance. The person who was physically strongest got to be the top dog. Then came the cult of personality where we let people dominate us if they have rock star personalities. But form without content is fast fading in its power to hold our attention. We now want people who can deliver and our patience is short.
Building on the guerrilla warfare theme, today’s reality is that it is much easier to show leadership occasionally than it is to BE a leader for more than a moment. The truth is that leadership has always been about power. In the old days it was about the power to dominate us. Today, we say that content is king. A crucial implication of this slogan is that no one has a monopoly on good content, eye-catching ideas. The power to lead has shifted forever from personal power to the ability to generate new ideas, the next great thing that captures everyone’s imagination. This is not so much the power of knowledge as the power to create new knowledge. This is why leadership needs to be seen as an occasional act, almost like creativity, rather than a long term role like fatherhood. I call it thought leadership. Anyone who promotes a new idea, a better way of doing things and who successfully convinces others to buy the idea, has shown leadership. On this view, leadership could be shown by everyone at a meeting and it could shift from one participant to another several times during the meeting.
So, the question ”Are you a leader?” should be recast as ”Can you show leadership?” Take Al Gore. You could say that he is not a leader in the old dominant sense because he missed out on being president, but he often shows leadership today – whenever he makes speeches that champion environmental causes.
If you want to know whether you can show leadership, don’t ask whether you have what it takes to be the boss, to get to the top slot. Ask yourself instead whether you have ever convinced your colleagues or boss to do something different. Actually, to show leadership, your followers don’t even have to do anything. You could show leadership by convincing people to stop doing something or to avoid taking what is clearly an unfounded risk. Maybe you convinced your colleagues to avoid doing something unethical. You have shown leadership in these instances because you have influenced people to change their thinking. Perhaps you are just an unusually hard worker who never complains, who just gets on with it, but who never tries to persuade colleagues of anything. Still, you may have shown leadership by example if they stopped complaining and got on with their work after observing you behave this way.
The bottom line is that leadership comes in degrees. It is no longer the all-or-nothing thing of being at the top. Leadership can range from very small scale actions like setting a better example on how to serve customers in a restaurant to winning the support of millions to rally around you in support of a globally important cause. If you continue to see leadership in all-or-nothing terms as a role you need to aspire to, you are effectively disempowering yourself. You are denying your power to show leadership viewed as the occasional act of convincing others to adopt a better way. So, everyone can show some leadership every day, if only on a small scale. You might, therefore, ask yourself what leadership you can show today.
By John Benson