When I was in grade school, I always knew who the leader was: it was our teacher. I went to a small Catholic grade school, where the entire day was spent in the same classroom with the same people and the same teacher. One leader, the rest of us followers. Every day. We were taught to listen to the leader, do what the leader says, not to speak unless called on by the leader. There was a lot of discipline, and it made for a well-run machine. Leader/follower. Sounds strict, and it was. I knew my role, I knew who the leader was, and that’s the way of the world. Right?
As life went on, it was very important to me to find and follow the leader, with the emphasis on first figuring out who the leader was. I spent a lot of years looking for THE leader in any given situation, as opposed to A leader. I was trained to be a follower, so I was always looking for the leader so I could do my job of following. Growing up in a high-performance environment that was right/wrong, good/bad, do this/not that, the world seemed pretty binary to me. So, in my mind, it would be easy to spot and follow the leaders in my future work life, because in any given situation, there would only be 1 leader. Just one.
This point of view seemed to work for a while. I knew my boss was my leader, so it was easy for me to follow the leader, and work each year to meet (or exceed!) my annual goals. No problem! As my career moved forward, this point of view continued to work…until it didn’t. My annual reviews started to take a different tone. Although I would always meet or exceed my goals and earn a bonus, there would be growth opportunities mentioned in the leadership department. That confused me…I wasn’t a leader, so why was I getting tips on leadership in my reviews?
I was in my early 30’s at this time. Here I was, thinking I was rocking my career. In my mind, I was simply supposed to execute on a goal I had been given by my own leader; my boss, the equivalent of the teacher in my younger, formative years. Then one day, while facilitating a workshop in the lower level west lobby conference room (I even remember the weather that day and how the room was arranged), there was a moment of conflict when I didn’t write on the flip chart exactly word for word what one of the team members said; I had instead paraphrased what I thought he said. I didn’t see this as an issue, yet it quickly became one. Instant disengagement from that person. I stood there, dumbfounded. One of the other attendees looked at me and asked why I paraphrased his words, because she agreed that his statement was a pivotal idea that we needed to capture and explore.
At that moment, my review flashed before my eyes and it hit me: when I facilitate a meeting or manage a project, those were leadership roles. I was supposed to be a leader that day. It was my job to keep the team engaged and inspired, and I wasn’t doing that. I was not being a leader, and they told me as such. Starting from the very next suggestion in that meeting, I wrote the comments word for word…and I’ve been doing so ever since.
That particular day was the day I latched onto the idea that all of us are leaders. That person whom I paraphrased, was trying to lead me to see my mistake. The person who asked me point blank why I paraphrased the comment was also leading me, guiding me to think through my actions and reflect on exactly what I thought I was doing…or not doing, as the case was.
That experience truly changed my perspective and launched my curiosity about all things leadership in organizations. I’m no perfect leader by any means; I’m always looking for ways to practice my leader voice, get feedback, and improve. I’m on a continuous journey of leadership development and finding my leader voice!
Looking back, my boss spotted a leader in me, and it took that situation for me to spot the other leaders: those in my team, and the leader in myself. I see leaders everywhere now. I hear leader voices everywhere too; in the hall, in meetings, in casual cube-side conversations. Leading is all around you!
The best way to spot a leader? Look in the mirror! YOU have opportunities to lead. YOU have a voice that can positively impact and influence others…as well as yourself. You don’t need multiple degrees and certificates and decades of experience as a manager to be considered a leader. We are ALL leaders, and you can all find and use your leader voice starting right now, right after you finish reading this.
I admit, there’s times that I go back to my doer/follower tendency when I could be using my leader voice. What helps me is to look in the mirror, and reflect that I am a leader, and I do have a leader voice. Am I using it correctly, positively, and am I consistent? What are some current leadership gaps and how can I improve? When I mess up, what can I learn from that situation and how can I be better next time?
Next time you look into the mirror, take a deep breath, and say out loud, “I am a leader!” It might feel uncomfortable and awkward, and you might not believe it. That’s OK, it takes practice, and sometimes it takes an uncomfortable situation like mine, to realize that you ARE a leader, and you can find and develop your leader voice to positively impact and influence others and yourself.