When you ask people, especially women, whether they see themselves as leaders, they usually sputter towards a soft "no."
One reason for that "no" is a desire to deflect credit. The other reason is our belief that leadership is synonymous with authority. And with a definition like that, most of us don't qualify.
Few of us have authority, fancy suits, and best-in-class technical skill. Even fewer of us feel the authority we actually have. Plus, those with authority can be more invested in maintaining it than leading.
So I'm advocating that leadership be explored outside the context of authority. Over the past week, I've been digging into some writing on leadership. I've been sitting with Ron Heifetz's model of adaptive leadership, this medley of pieces on "disruptive leadership," and Seth Godin's manifesto on the artist-leader. These models of leadership are different, but they all point to truths about leading that empower, challenge, and enable.
Here are a few truths these brave leaders reminded me of:
- A leader is a person that leads. Ron Heifetz says leadership is an action, not a job title. Seth Godin points out that we look at leaders and think that we can't do what they do because we're not charismatic, smart, or powerful enough. But he says that it isn't that people lead because they have charisma; they have charisma because they lead.
- We lead more than we think we do. We lead our team of 3 when we go over project parameters. We lead our neighborhood through the ways we act as we walk its streets. We lead our families when we act from a place of fear. We lead through action and we lead through inaction.
- A leader is the person willing to fail. I was surprised to notice that 5 of the 22 words in Meriam Webster's definition of entrepreneur are "greater than normal financial risks." So risk is not a pesky side effect of being an entrepreneur -- it's definitional. And Heifetz says that the word leader comes from the root "leit, the name for the person who carried the flag in front of an army going into battle and usually died in the first enemy attack. When the fundamental unit in entrepreneurship these days is "build, measure, learn", failure is not a potential outcome that you'd like to avoid. It is a fundamental building block of the project. Failure generates learning; learning leads to growth.
- It's about them, not you. One of the keys of Heifetz's adaptive leadership is a recognition that "the people are the problem and the people are the solution... leadership, then, is about mobilizing and engaging the people with the problem rather than trying to anesthetize them so that you can just go off and solve it on your own."
- Leaders commit to a problem, not a solution. When investors ask you about your revenue model, they don't want to hear that you've invented the perfect revenue model. They want to hear that you're committed to finding the perfect revenue model and that you've been working on solving that problem with intention and efficacy. Your solution is usually wrong, but your commitment to a problem will bring you to the right solution.
My point is this: you're already a leader. How can you do leadership better?