The word “leadership” can have different meaning depending on who it is that you ask to define it. Though leadership and being a leader can take many different forms, How we define leadership is often based on the personal experience we have with it.
When you hear the word “leadership”, what comes to mind? If I were to ask you “what does it mean to be a leader?” What would say?
You might start off by saying that leadership is about having influence. Most people would say that’s true. Great leaders know how to influence those around them (sometimes positively and sometimes negatively) and to achieve a common goal. You might list off some of the qualities or characteristics that are associated with effective and notable leaders like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill: strength, charisma, confidence, courage, empathy, or an ability to clearly communicate their vision to others. All of these qualities are part of good leadership.
Leadership Takes Time to Grow
Too often, unfortunately, when I ask the question “what does it mean to be a leader?” I hear answers that speak largely about transactional leadership; about a leader having followers and those followers doing what the leader tells them to do. I get answers that suggest leadership is only for the chosen few.
But effective and authentic leadership begins by learning how to lead one’s self. Before you can go out and be the kind of leader that changes companies, organizations, communities, or the world, you have to first be willing to develop your own personal leadership potential.
That potential, like a tree, can grow strong and sturdy with the proper care and nurturing. But the seed of leadership must first be planted. Then, like all living things, we must nurture and care for it. We nurture it with the books we read, the conversations we take part in, and with a dedicated amount of practice. With self-discipline and focus, that tree grows to become a tall and powerful force of nature. From time to time the strength and determination of our own leadership is tested much like a growing tree may be tested by wind and weather. By standing tall in difficult situations, that’s how we develop strong and lasting leadership skills. And just like a forest is made up of many trees, with the right opportunity, support and practice we can create powerful leadership communities.
Each day we’re provided with opportunities to positively impact the lives of those around us: The opportunity to help someone by doing more than is required of you, the chance to show someone you care by going out of your way to make them feel valued, or by just listening more and speaking less. As we do these daily leadership tasks and activities, we create roots in our own development. Those roots take hold and we begin to develop the necessary skills of leadership: compassion, self-discipline, active listening, and self-care, for example. Before we head out to lead others, we need to make sure we are leading ourselves. Just as taking care of others starts with taking care of ourselves, we must first lead ourselves if we hope to become effective leaders in our communities.
It can be a lot easier said than done though. It can be easy to fall into the trap of putting aside the things we need to do for ourselves because we believe we’re “too busy” leading others. John C. Maxwell, an internationally renowned leadership expert, speaker, and author, suggests the powerful idea that if you can’t lead yourself, others won’t follow you, won’t respect you, and won’t partner with you, so creating strategies and learning skills for self-leadership is fundamental.
Leadership is Not a Destination
Leadership is not just an end goal or just a position we strive to be in. Leadership is not a daylong event or a weeklong conference. It’s not a course that we take in school. Leadership is a life-long journey. It’s a choice that you make to be better every single day. The choice to lead others starts with the choice you make to lead yourself. When you make that choice, you may find some pretty miraculous changes begin to develop in your own life and the lives of those around you.
Planting Your Own Seeds of Leadership:
So how do you do it? How do we plant (and nurture) the seed so that it can grow? How do we do this with the people we surround ourselves with? Here are a few ideas that I've used that have worked for me:
1. Schedule time with yourself – Just like you might schedule time with friends to go see a movie or to go to the gym, commit at least 30 minutes every week to your own personal leadership development. During this time you may choose to write down what you’re feeling or experiencing or you may choose to dedicate this time to reading up on strategies to develop your leadership skills.
2. Ask Yourself “What kind of leader am I right now?” and “What kind of leader do I want to be?” – We all have strengths and weaknesses that help us or hurt us when it comes to fostering leadership in ourselves. Take a look at what your strengths are and where you can best use them to serve others. Maybe you’re good at web design or creating online videos but not so good at getting up in front of a room full of people and talking, how could you use them to help the local food bank or shelter in your area?
3. Recognize When to Step Forward…and When to Step Back – Leadership is not always about stepping forward and taking charge. It’s also about knowing when to step back and let others lead. The most effective (and well liked) leaders are those who know when to step out of the spotlight and support others.
4. Learn to Listen (I mean really listen) – Leaders are great communicators. Great leaders have the ability to say what needs to be said in the most influential way possible. But more important than talking, great leaders know how to actively listen. One of my favourite saying around this comes from the Greek philosopher, Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Matt Tod is an international speaker, leadership facilitator, writer and lover of all things Zombie-related.