What Makes a Leader?

             Have you ever just sat and wondered what it truly meant to be a leader? My guess is probably not. I recently purchase 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? We all assume that there are leaders all around us. For those of you working in lower level positions, you may look at your boss as a leader or another higher ranking employee as a leader. Many people see the President of the U.S. as a leader, while others would laugh in your face if you told them that. Heck, people even looked at Hitler as a leader. So it is clear that there are vastly different opinions regarding the what-makes-a-leader question. But then I asked myself this, if the President of the US is a leader, would I do whatever he told me to do? Would I trust him no matter what? Maybe yes, maybe no. Needless to say this question got me thinking, and after a while I finally decided that there is no standard leader. A leader is whoever you think they are. If you are liberal and for socialized health-care, Obama is your leader. If you are a five-year old learning how to ride a bike, the person standing beside you making sure that you don’t fall is a leader.

       So why are certain people automatically granted the right to be a leader? I think it is because many people assume that those in higher ranking roles have all of the answers, and therefore, they follow them. This in turn automatically grants those certain higher ranking people a leadership role in their field. But what did they really earn to deserve that title? Does some extra education or brain power really make you more of a leader than me? I would argue no. I think that the school teacher who only went to college is just as capable of being a leader as a college graduate that went onto law school and then got their PhD. Myers agrees with me (or maybe I agree with Myers since I was reading her book).

       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. . .”

       When I read this paragraph, which states a lot more than what I have quoted, I stopped and tried to think of who the leaders in my life have been. I though of past bosses and could only really think of one person who asked why and really meant it. I thought of those who presented themselves as leaders, but who were unwilling to look at other possibilities or hear other opinions. Unfortunately there were a lot of those people on my list. The more I thought about this the more I realized that leaders are all around us. They are at school, at work, and in your very own house. Sure we look at the people on TV as leaders, and they very well may be to some, but the people who lead us in our every day lives are those that we see on a regular basis and never think of as leaders. Take for example a teacher from grade school that you still remember. Why do you think you remember them? Because they let you have cupcakes in class or because they taught you some profound lesson that you have carried with you? I would hope your answer wasn’t cupcakes. Reading the introductory portion to Myer’s book made me understand that there are leaders in my life today that I don’t even technically acknowledge as leaders. Myers made me realize that if we don’t want to look up to those drug addict Hollywood celebrities, those flip-flopping politicians, or those mean bosses we don’t have to.

       Myers also says that a leader doesn’t always know the answers but can ask the right question, “Why?” 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? Why? Why? Why? Sure, someone who asks why something is the way it is looks like he doesn’t have the answer, but isn’t that ok? I think we all have this thought about leaders in our minds that these people are all-knowing. The truth is that no one knows everything about anything. Even an expert in a particular field is constantly learning and expanding. I mean sure people go to school to receive better degrees in order to make themselves and others believe that they are smarter and have all of the answers, but the truth is that they don’t. One would assume that the lawyer, the expert in the law, has all the answers. Sure the lawyer who has access to Westlaw or Lexis Nexis (legal databases) has access to all of the answers, but no lawyer can spit out all of the answers matter-of-factly without first looking into it. Now, I don’t by any means think that just because you are a lawyer you are a leader, I am just using that as an example. But say Joe Shmo, the homeless man who hangs out on your corner, looks up to Jane Doe, an attorney that graduated from Harvard. Ask yourself why Joe is looking up to Jane. Is it because she knows all the answers or because of her title? If you said the latter, then ask yourself why? Why do we always look up to people with special titles or commas after their names? Why do we listen to those politicians that we always see on TV? Why? If we can ask why and truly look into ourselves, then maybe we can be leaders.

        The last profound thing that Myers says about leaders is that being a leader is about making people feel good about themselves, the project they are working on, etc. As I am sure you know, we all enjoy doing things when we feel good about them. If you have a boss that is always hovering over you and criticizing your work, you probably won’t be very excited about working with them. Before reading this introductory section I never thought about whether a leader had to make you feel good about yourself. It almost seems strange to think that a leader should make you feel good, but if you really think about it, would you look up to someone as a leader if they didn’t inspire you or make you feel excited about what you were doing? I think not.

      If you take all of this and try to think of who you follow or look up to as a leader, I am sure that there will be a lot more “normal” people than you would have thought of. The leaders in my life are people who inspire me, give me unyielding guidance, and who make me feel good about myself as a woman, a wife, and a worker.

Who are your leaders?

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