“I want to be the leader!” called out a little girl as she got on her bike. “I want to be the leader!” yelled another girl. As the group of young kids headed off on another adventure I stood there pondering this passionate display of leadership that was so incredibly full of life. And I wondered why it shrinks as we get older.
How big is leadership? It’s bigger than even youthful exuberance and confidence. It’s as big as life. Because leadership is life. We are born with an innate desire for leadership that comes from the basic instinct to adapt and grow and become.
But then we begin to stuff it into organizational boxes and build walls around it. Pretty soon the walls restrict leadership to a select chosen few and the sign on the door reads, “Managers only.” For all the unchosen, “I want to be a leader!” is soon replaced with “It’s not my job,” “I don’t have the authority,” or “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”
How do we take down these walls and bring leadership back to life?
Leadership is bigger than management. When you talk about management, call it management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about really good management, call it good management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. When you talk about upper management, call it upper management or executive management, don’t call it leadership. Down comes a wall. Talk about how important it is for managers to be leaders but don’t suggest that only managers can be leaders. Down comes a wall.
Leadership is bigger than business. Talk about the role of leadership in business. But don’t suggest, intentionally or unintentionally, that leadership happens only in the context of running a business. Running a business is management, and it should be guided by good leadership. Leadership happens in boardrooms, and it happens at dinner tables and on playgrounds and at checkout lines. A leadership discussion can be about profits, or it can be about dreams or bullies or heartbreak or 10 pm curfews or what we’re going to do next. Don’t teach leadership as an occupational skill in business school, teach it as a life skill in kindergarten. Talk about leadership in the full context of life and walls start falling down all over the place.
Leadership is bigger than our boxes and walls. Fascinating things happen when we take down the walls we have built around leadership and open it up to everyone. People grow. Their eyes are opened to see they have the permission and ability and responsibility to lead. Their hearts are opened to the unique purpose they have to serve.
Managers are set free to be the leaders they are truly meant to be. Youth are no longer fettered with the label of “future leaders” and they live as leaders today. Citizens take a stand for justice because it is influence, not authority, that leads real lasting change. Groups of people who by their race or gender or other physical characteristics have often found themselves on the outside come to see that they are leaders by their own choice.
Service, influence, relationship, trust, community, vision – this is the stuff of leadership. This is the stuff of life.
Let’s stop making leadership so much smaller than it really is. Let’s exuberantly declare, “I want to be a leader!” Let each and every single one of us boldly claim, “I am a leader!” Let’s set leadership free to be life size.