For years, I wanted to be the leader.

Back in elementary school, I remember being part of a small group of close friends. Every recess, we stuck together. In a world where sticks, stones, and words have the ability to cause pain, there was strength in numbers.

And for some reason, that group looked to me to make the decisions. "What will we play today?" "Who should make up the teams?"

That's a lot of responsibility for a 6-year-old, but I was happy to assume the role.

Flash forward decades later.

As I matured and gained wisdom, my thinking changed. I'm still happy to lead a team--and have gotten plenty of opportunities through the course of my career. Truth is, I still get a lot of joy out of it.

However, I'm just as happy to follow someone else's lead, and have learned more when I do so. 

Those years have taught me countless lessons about leadership. But none are bigger than this one:

Those who lead the most effectively concern themselves with action, not position.

"Wait a second," you say. "We need leaders. Businesses and organizations need leaders. People need to be shown the right way to go."

I agree, to an extent. But time and time again, I've seen individuals who were in the practice of doing the right thing--until they received a position of authority. What happens next is sad: Those previously humble people become known for traits like hubris and haughtiness, to the point that people can't stand to be around "the leader" anymore.

In contrast, there are some who get appointed to those positions, and they don't change at all. Or if they do, it's for the better. These are the people who know their role; they know that others look to follow their example, but they aren't concerned with being "the leader."

They know the ancient adage is true: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The truth is, most of us are thrust into some type of leadership role in our lives--whether we want it or not, and whether or not we're ready for it. Think about the couple who suddenly discovers they will become parents, although they weren't planning children. Or the newly appointed team leader, who was actually perfectly happy with his or her role as a worker bee.

Even if you don't find yourself in one of these positions, when you focus on doing things right and pursuing excellence--people will naturally be drawn to you and your example.

So, instead of focusing on being a leader, focus on this:

Set the example

Let's say you ask me how to get somewhere you've never been before. I could outline step by step directions, draw you a map, even provide details about landmarks to look out for.

Or I could say: "That's not too far out of my way. Why don't you just follow me?"

Value statements and culture decks are often abstract and ineffective. And "Do as I say, not as I do" never works: You can preach respect and integrity until you're blue in the face, but it won't mean anything when you curse out a member of your team.

On the contrary, try working hard to show others what you believe in, and they'll naturally follow.

Appreciate others

Often when a person changes circumstances, he or she quickly forgets what it's like on the other side. (I wrote about this "perspective gap" in a previous piece.)

There's no exception when one is put in a position of authority: Suddenly, the newly appointed leader forgets what it's like to deal with the problems he or she used to face on a daily basis. The answer to everything becomes: Just get me results!

Of course, the situation is also difficult for the new leader, who is also struggling to learn the new position. If you find yourself in those circumstances, remember:

Empathy begets empathy. Treat others with kindness and respect, and work hard to understand their perspective. Praise authentically and specifically, and focus on the good in your team.

They'll repay the favor.

Be kind. But not weak

Praise is good, but it's limited. People also need corrective feedback.

Refusing to address an individual's major problems doesn't help him or her grow. And if a person's behavior adversely affects co-workers, refusal to take action will gradually destroy your culture.

Be constructive, yet direct, with your criticism. Don't offer correction in an authoritative way; rather, with a spirit of helpfulness. (And throw that rotten feedback sandwich in the trash; here's a much more emotionally intelligent way to offer negative feedback.)

Putting it into practice

Perhaps Simon Sinek put it best:

There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they're individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to.

Having others want to follow your ideals, values, or example is an honor. Treat it as such, but do us all a favor: Don't focus on the position. Just show us how to do it right.

If you succeed at that, I promise we'll follow.

Published on: May 13, 2016
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