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Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tacos, and the True Meaning of Leadership

On the way home today, I passed a digital sign in front of the Del Taco fast food joint down the street that read: "Are you a leader?"   I immediately thought to myself,  Everyone's always talking about leadership, about being a leader, but what about the content behind leadership?  Who do they think we should be leading, and what exactly does Del Taco want people to lead others in?  Besides, if everyone is leading and there's no one around to follow, "leadership" would lose its meaning, right?

For some reason the question stuck with me throughout the day.  Am I a leader?  
When we think of "leaders", often the first people who come to mind are global changemakers, leaders of huge movements, and we think of them as having a lot of power and perhaps controlling a lot of assets such as money, things, events, people's mindsets, etc.

I can recall this view of mega-scale leadership being reinforced during college. There were nationally renowned speakers, authors, and leaders constantly coming in to speak on our campus.  A lot of them were musicians-turned-philanthropists or turned-activists who decided they were going to change the world.   Don't get me wrong, they're fabulous people doing great things and are all very inspiring in their own right, but the flood of huge names and huge campaigns seemed to have a narrowing effect on my perception of leadership.

It wasn't until today, thanks to this Del Taco sign, that I straightened out my thinking about leadership. I'm going to share my not-very-official definition of leadership, the way I think of it in my head:   To me, leadership is saying "Hey guys, here's what I'm doing, here's where I'm going;  I think it's a worthy pursuit, wanna join?"

In research we talk about looking at various phenomena on different "levels" -- for example, we could look at "fear of UFOs" on an individual level (how it affects a person's life), on a family level (how the fear affects family relationships), on a community level, on a national societal level, on a global level, and so on. (In fact, if you could get ahold of some aliens, you might even be able to study it on a universal level.)  You can look at almost any phenomena on more than one level.

But outside of academia, how much time do we spend thinking about things like leadership on various levels?

To me, leadership is saying "Hey guys, here's what I'm doing, here's where I'm going;  I think it's a worthy pursuit, wanna join?"

Families need leaders.  Sometimes friends need leaders.  Communities need leaders, and organizations definitely need leaders.   Discussions on leadership can quickly spiral into the particulars of vision casting and mission statements, but to simplify all that, isn't it just about finding something to do, somewhere to go, and helping pave the way for others to get there?

Just as a lot of the discussion on leadership has highlighted people leading on a huge scale, there has been a lot of focus on "born-global" businesses: start-ups that launch in multiple markets and multiple countries -- sometimes multiple continents -- from Day One.  Great importance has been placed on scalability and scaling up quickly.  But you can't just start leading at a global level without doing your homework on an individual, organizational, or community level.  After all, who are you leading to buy into your product or service?  They're individuals.  Sometimes they're individuals representing an organization or a community, but at the end of the day, they're still individuals.

I've never had any particular desire to be a global leader, thought leader, or changer of the world at large. But I realize now that if I ever do feel called to that, I better have gotten used to understanding what it means to lead people, to come alongside individuals and say, "Hey guys, here's what I'm doing, here's where I'm going;  I think it's a worthy pursuit, wanna join?"

So are you a leader?  Are you thinking about being a leader?  If you ask me, I'll tell you that the merit of your leadership isn't based on how many followers you have or on how far-reaching your influence is.  It's enough to lead your family well, to lead a daycare center well, to lead even just one person out of loneliness, depression, sickness, or something else that ails them.   If you care about someone, if you see an opportunity, and if you can come alongside that person and say, "Hey there, here's what I'm doing, here's where I'm going;  I think it's a worthy pursuit, wanna join?" ... it seems to me like you're well on your way as a leader.

*Disclaimer:  I have to admit, there are some really cool "community leadership" programs, and campaigns, etc. addressing more local levels of leadership that are probably in operation all around me.  I just haven't seemed to really "see" them for a long time.  And if I've been missing that, others might be, too.  Funny how a sign on the lawn of a fast-food restaurant would be the catalyst for this eye-opening thought exercise. 


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