Defining Leadership

March 3, 2010
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. — John Quincy Adams

I have been spending four days a week talking about leadership with university students since January. This converts to much considering what it means to lead and how to do it well. Over the past couple of weeks, the students and I have been exploring in depth the traits of leaders we admire.  Yet, completing that exercise left us all feeling like being an “outstanding leader” was well beyond our personal grasp!

Our class results contend that we like to admire our leaders. We want them to be strong, courageous, emotionally intelligent, organized and adaptable. We desire their passions to inspire us into action. We hope that they will motivate us to be our best. They should speak and write well. Yet, upon self-reflection every one of us had noticed that we don’t always measure up to our imposed standards.

My students remind me that this “name your favorite leader traits” game can discourage them from showing up as leaders. How can they consider themselves viable when they are sometimes weak, terrified, coarse, disorganized and fixed in their positions? “If I can’t make the grade, why play and fail,” some of them asked.

Meanwhile, I believe that they are all leaders and they all need to plunge into the work of facilitating change. I keep reminding them of my favorite definition of leadership from Margaret Wheatley, “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.” Since each student wants to be of assistance on their campus and in the community, they are leaders, like it or not.

To address the super hero leadership requirements we defined and being human, the students and I have been appreciating Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership. Bill has a marvelous way of acknowledging that we each bring different approaches, strengths and weaknesses to this job of “helping at this time.” He invites to show up, regardless of where we begin AND to try to rise to our best. Bill explains, “After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity. It’s being yourself; being the person you were created to be…Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.”

Using a personal example, I know that the best instructors are ones that have healthy detachment from their students’ performance. To effectively lead a classroom it helps to:

  • Teach at your best,
  • Encourage your students’ best, and
  • Not get thrown off if others don’t rise to your encouragement.

However, this week I wanted to verbally slap the student who, yet again, had not read the assignment and was nodding off in class; not very leader-like or lady-like behavior. I didn’t yell (thankfully), but I was mad that I took way too personally that student’s lack of preparation and focus.

Bill George’s words remind me that not only my wish to remain centered, but also my clear frustration, is authentically me. Acknowledging that I was not feeling very Gandhi-ish, is both kind to myself and it calls me directly to keep trying to practice healthy detachment and creative instruction.

Basically, as my son Cody likes to say, “It’s all good.” I believe it’s good that we set high standards. It’s good that I sometimes get thrown off, so that I can recognize what my standards are and how I get tripped up. Also, it’s good that even though I am far from perfect, I am still trying to help at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever find appropriate detachment anywhere in my life, but it’s good, according to George and to most spiritual traditions, that I’m just willing to try.

This week as you lead in any way, pay attention. What traits would you like to display and which ones are you using? Instead of backing off from leadership or beating up on yourself because you missing the bulls eye you’ve created, allow where you are and what you care about to guide you. I personally appreciate your “help at this time” and that we all keep practicing!

Here’s a fun leadership video following the theme of today’s post by Derek Sivers that I thought you might enjoy as you consider helping.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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