M0A1: Defining leadership

Prompt: List three definitions of leadership, and then describe your personal definition of the term.

Response: It was difficult not to turn to the usual suspects, but I tried to choose quotes or definitions that resonated particularly well.

#1 Stephen Covey’s Leader Formula: Perhaps it’s a little trite to turn first to Covey,  but I like his democratic definition:

My definition of leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

By this definition, most people are a leader on a fairly regular basis, which I find quite appealing. He lays out a fairly uncomplicated formula for becoming a leader: inspire trust, clarify purpose, and align systems, which results in unleashed talent. I find we often need others to ‘give us permission’ to be the thing we want to be, and Covey’s articulation of leader sounds a lot like how I would describe a supporter or facilitator (two things I try to be).

#2 Susan Cain on introverted leaders: I am not quite sure if I’m an introvert or an ambivert, but I do know that I’m definitely not an extrovert, so I like Cain’s take on things.

[I]ntroverts rarely rise to leadership for the sake of being a leader. They get into those positions when they care about a cause and people start to trust them, not because they have the loudest voices or larger than life personalities. People respond to people who have a true, authentic commitment to something, and a deep expertise.

This describes fairly accurately how Building Bridges works. It was a few workshops, then it was a few more; it was a one-woman project, then it had a few volunteers, now it has some partners, and so on. I can tell you exactly why the initiative is dear to me, what is great about what it does, and everything that is fairly flawed and that I’m working to make better. I think of all the people I work with as collaborators on a cause we’re all equally passionate about, not followers of my directives. Of course, that does mean that I squirm uncomfortably when thinking about the nuts and bolts of Building Bridges’ expansion.

#3 Nelson Mandela and Simon Sinek on sacrificial leaders: I found it interesting that these descriptions were so similar, and I included them both.

Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people. (Mandela)

We call them leaders because they go first…because they take the risk before anybody else does...because they will choose to sacrifice so that their people may be safe and protected and so their people may gain. (Sinek)

I picked this one because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel as though we’re in a perpetual state of war, but it’s a reminder that change requires a fight. Even if it’s not violent, it requires much of the selflessness you need to lay down your life for others…and I certainly have work to do in this area.

My definition: I think it’s fairly easy to come up with a laundry list of positive attributes and then say, “That’s leadership!” but I don’t want to do that. Instead, I wonder why we use the word leader at all, and whether we really, truly, need leaders. I’m assuming that when you have the word ‘lead’ in leaders, there is necessarily someone in front, taking a number of followers somewhere new. But look at Covey’s definition – his description would fit any supportive family member or friend. In his TED talk, Sinek says that the closest analogy he can find to good leadership is good parenting. Even Cain’s description entails you getting behind a cause, not getting in front of people. Honestly, I don’t think any of these are descriptions of ‘leaders’ at all – I think these all indicate that a hierarchy is ultimately unsustainable, and that what we really need are networks of interdependent and supportive collaborators. Sometimes, these collaborations are easy – you collect a tribe of people with similar values (the why) but diverse and complementary skills (the what/how) and magic happens. Sometimes, these shows of support are hard, and only possible with immense love – like all the things my parents have gone without so that I will never know what it’s like to need (not want…need) something I can’t have.

So instead of a definition, I have a proposal — can we get rid of the word leader altogether instead of coming up with new definitions for it that (I think) are actually describing something much more exciting? I know my dislike of the word stems from my academic work environment and anarchist tendencies, so it could just be that I’m trying to find an excuse to not call myself a leader. Perhaps. But I do think that if we’re reinventing the word leader, then maybe what we need is a new word (or words) to describe fruitful human interactions. Here are some I like:

Catalysts: Someone who gives someone else the spark they need to accelerate forward. I don’t think we can just be perpetual catalysts, lighting up random people – we all need to both catalyse and be catalysed, and that comes from connection, trust, and communication. It’s an ongoing process, not a one-time thing.
Collaborators: Fairly self-explanatory. I do what I do best to help you do what you do best, and then magic happens.
Connectors: We seek out people to be collaborators, not only for the things we want to get done, but to help other people grow their dreams too. Sometimes, I suspect, that does mean deferring our own dreams – but this is something I want to sit with for a bit. I’m finding it difficult to figure out how to be self-sacrificial in a meaningful way.
Creators: We make things. Fun things, meaningful things, tangible and intangible things, that make our communities better.
Community: Going global is great and all, but we need a tribe. “All children/women/youth everywhere” is super fuzzy-sounding (especially if I’m going to be sacrificing my life for them!). I want to know the names of the people I work with, and what makes them tick.

More to come, I guess?

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