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GREAT LEADERS

How to Spot a True Act of Leadership

Step behind the headlines and learn what true leadership means for you and your organization.
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This article is an adapted excerpt from the author's forthcoming book, Do Lead.

Let's start with the real secret of leadership: It happens all the time, almost anywhere you look, and it's frankly not that difficult.

Disappointed? Perhaps you were expecting something a little more, well, challenging?

That's not surprising, because for the past, oh, three millennia--in fact, since an unknown Homo erectus first did a Banksy on a cavern wall--we've been pretty much preoccupied as a society with the idea of heroic leadership. You know, the Neanderthal who slays the saber-toothed tiger, Odysseus, Napoleon, the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, Captain Sully--all that good stuff.

Which is fine. It makes for good reading and an endless source of uplifting quotes (great for use in motivational posters and filling all that white space left over on your team-building PowerPoint slide).

The problem is that we've become so accustomed to leadership being defined as heroic by journalists (or historians) looking for a good story, we have lost the ability to see true leadership for what it really is: an almost always unglorious, headline-free, mundane activity that takes place every minute of every day in uncountable different (albeit prosaic) ways.

Compare and Contrast

On the day I wrote this chapter, the first "leadership" stories I encountered during my usual, fairly random, media consumption were as follows:

-- A profile of a 46-year-old whiz-kid CEO from a hip, funky, brand-name organization who has redefined the concept of leadership in his company by, wait for it, looking to his favorite sports coaching heroes.

-- The CIO of a Fortune 500 company tells a leadership conference that he "wakes up every morning filled with excitement about what [my] team of more than 1,200 employees aims to do for the day and with a drive to apply [my] knowledge to [my] best potential."

-- An academic who has taken a sabbatical to study the challenges of leadership in modern society reports that he has identified them to be "technology and information," "resilience," "well-being," "disruptive innovation," and something he calls "environmental scanning."

Notice how all of these stories follow the same narrative arc: the assumption that leadership must somehow be, however vaguely, connected to wisdom or bravery or celebrity or scale or great achievement--something, anything, that adds a heroic tinge. It's hard to feel that any of these well-reported stories have any real relevance to how most of us spend our time, day to day, in the real world.

Now, let me share with you the first few actual acts of leadership I encountered on the same day:

-- Our team had to head out at 8:30 a.m. for a client meeting. My wife rose before dawn to get her gym visit in early, so our shared car would be available for my team to use on time.

-- During a coaching call, a client made a commitment to me that for one week she would not interrupt others during her team's discussions and would allow her colleagues to fully finish their thoughts before expressing her own opinion.

-- During a meeting at a local coffee shop, I watched as a barista stopped cleaning table tops and jumped in to assist a colleague when the line became lengthy.

Notice a difference between the media-reported stories and the real-world acts of leadership?

Storytelling requires a narrative arc, and reporting on leadership is no different--there needs to be a hero or a villain or a winner or a loser (or a video of a cute cat, at the very least). Fair enough; magazines and newspapers need to sell copies, websites need visitors, and none of them will garner much interest with stories like "Woman Returns Car to Husband at 8:15 a.m."

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against heroic leadership. In fact, because of my job coaching senior executives, I get to see more of it than most people, and watching leaders do incredible things under stress or navigate themselves and others through difficult situations regularly reduces me to a blubbering mess.

But that doesn't mean we should take the hero-as-leader template as our only, or even our main, model of leadership.

Real-world leadership is most typically understated--often to the point of going unseen by most people. Real-world leadership is most often prosaic, mundane, unspectacular. In fact, if you glanced casually through the examples of real-world leadership I gave earlier, you probably wrinkled your brow and wondered how they could be defined as acts of leadership at all.

What on earth elevates the making of coffee for a waiting line of customers to the level of leadership--isn't that just someone doing her job? Bringing a car back on time for someone else to use it? Isn't that just a common act of courtesy? And the executive who decided to try buttoning her lip and letting others speak for a change--she's surely just trying to be less of a jerk, no?

What Leadership Is

Well, it depends, of course, on how we define leadership. If heroic leadership is a valid concept but gives us the wrong (i.e., too narrow) perspective on what everyday leadership is, what then should our definition of leadership be?

Here's my take--one which I've honed from 35 years of working with leaders (heroic and otherwise), and from engaging in occasional acts of leadership myself--which we'll use as a working definition for the rest of this book:

Leadership is helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals.

Not very complicated, I admit, but it's a robust definition that has served me and the people and organizations I work with well over the years.

Want to dive deeper into the nature of leadership and how you can develop it within your organization? Download a free chapter from the author's book Do Lead: Share Your Vision. Inspire Others. Achieve the Impossible to learn the secrets behind true leadership and the mindset, tools, and techniques necessary to cultivate it in yourself and others.

IMAGE: Complot/Shutterstock
Last updated: Apr 24, 2014




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