When I was in high school, I participated in a fairly steady stream of “leadership” seminars, workshops, camps and classes due to the things I tended to be involved in. As a result, there is probably not a cheesy group activity or icebreaker I have not done… several times. As a side note, it is entirely possible to O.D. on those things, resulting in the nervous twitch that I get today when someone proposes that we start a meeting with an icebreaker. 😉 And no, they’re not all bad. And yes, in case you were wondering, I was totally cool in high school. Riiight… Anyway, moving on.
I remember one “leadership seminar” in particular when I was about sixteen. The facilitator asked the group to brainstorm and provide responses to the question “What is a leader?” As would be expected, people in my group said things, all of which I don’t remember now in the least. What I do remember (more or less) is what I blurted out, after thinking about it for a few minutes: “A leader is someone who leads by doing what they believe is right – whether or not anyone ends up following them.”
The group leader cocked her head to one side and frowned at me. “Hmm,” she said quite authoritatively, “Well, it seems to me that a fundamental definition of leading is that someone has to be following.”
I can’t remember if she wrote down my definition on the whiteboard or not, or if she just dismissed it then and there. I don’t know who she was, but she obviously missed facilitator training – the one where you learn that the number one rule to brainstorming is to avoid shooting someone down and making them feel incompetent.
Obviously, her rebuttal didn’t sit well with me, and it still doesn’t. Dare I say, she was utterly wrong. (Did you see that? Yeah, I just showed her, 15 years later!)
But seriously, think about anyone that you’ve ever respected, and why. Leaders are pioneers; they seem to be guided by something internal that centers them. They aren’t designing their approach based on who will follow them or what others will think about them. They take big risks in putting themselves out there when others may not always decide to follow. Some leaders get themselves killed or imprisoned for the truth that they pursue. Sometimes they look more like weirdo loners instead of leaders. Followers may show up eventually… but even if they don’t, does it negate leadership? Personally, I don’t think so.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in terms of all of the messages within our culture about “following”. It’s a very popular verb these days. We follow people on twitter. We are in the process of creating a massive interconnected web of “approvals” and crowd sentiment on the internet with our trail of “likes,” +1s, reviews and retweets. One the one hand (or should I say, thumb?), it’s an intriguing dataset that tells us where popular opinion lies. On the other, I wonder if the very existence of the constant popularity contest on the internet isn’t fundamentally changing the way we see the world and participate in it. Perhaps we are actually unknowingly altering who we are by craving the notion of “liking” or “approving” as the desired end result.
I’ve heard of teenagers who become severely depressed when their latest Facebook post doesn’t garner enough “likes”. We have been training ourselves to seek a constant stream of affirmation (or for some, non-affirmation) on the choices we make, the life we live, the way we look, and the witty (or shocking) comments we make. Sure, Shakespeare nailed it when he said “All the world’s a stage,” and that has always been true. But these days, it feels more like a stage with a spotlight, a microphone, a laugh track, flashing applause sign and a group of attractive backup singers.
The subtleties of appearance and performing can be seductive to anyone. Do we change who we are and what we say in order to seek affirmation on Facebook? Do we start catering to people we want to amuse or impress? It’s hard not to slide into it. Maybe I’m even doing that right now. Why do I blog, anyway? Because I like writing of course, but also because I know I have readers. So do I change or censor myself based on who I think is reading? I would certainly like to think not. But how can I be sure?
Anyway, it’s easy to get all wound up and confused thinking about that so I’ll stop there. It’s enough to make anyone become “pickled in themselves” as Bono would say.
I’m certainly not suggesting that leadership means that we should ignore what others have to say, or become obstinate, impulsive, and resistant to change. We should always keep testing and reforming our own opinions within a community of people we trust. We really do have a lot to learn from the experiences, advice, and even the mistakes of others. Others will challenge and change our assumptions for the better.
But affirmation is addictive and approval is seductive. It’s easy to follow followers instead of doing what is not easy: following our instincts and convictions about what we believe to be true. I think that is the white-hot center of what it means to be a leader. True leaders listen carefully, weigh the price and consider alternatives, but ultimately take action to do what they believe to be right – even if no-one presses the “like” button as a result.