April 1, 2021
One of the most common misconceptions in any organization is that leadership is associated with particular roles and only certain titles. Once you reach a specific rung on the proverbial corporate ladder or get that coveted promotion to a certain position, the thinking is, you’re now “officially” a leader.
The truth is leadership is not something that just happens. Nor is it something that requires a specific role or title. Rather, leadership is a choice. And it is a choice that involves values, vision, voice, and action.
People can choose to be a leader from their earliest days. Think of those people in their school years who seem to influence their peers in ways that others don’t. Some of them choose obvious outlets for exerting leadership: becoming the captain of a sports team or editor of the school newspaper or deciding to run for student council.
Crucially, however, other forms of leadership are less overt. We can all think of teams we’ve been a part of in school, in our communities, or at various points in our career where there was that one person who was the glue that held the team together. They may not have officially had the title of “captain” or “project lead,” but they were integral to the success of the overall team – and there’s little doubt that their contributions went far beyond their specific outputs but rather was defined by their broader impact.
Leadership is a mindset
These people choose to be leaders. It's a mindset; the notion that we all have opportunities to influence and inspire others.
In the history of humanity, on a global scale, there has never been a time when choosing to be a leader is so important. We’re faced with another year of uncertainty both in current conditions and the future impact of the global pandemic. There continue to be pressures from a global economic recession. And whether triggered by technological requirements, social pressures and evolution, the dynamic political environment, across-the-board leadership is very much wanted – and needed.
In the face of these crises, what are the leaders of organizations – whether they’re the officially designated “leaders,” or simply “members of the team” who are choosing to step up and expand into those roles – going to need to do to move us forward? What does modern-day leadership look like?
Leadership characteristics count
For starters, a foundational trait of contemporary leaders must be courage. I doubt many would debate the need for courageous leaders – whether it be in the private sector across industries, or public sector, in philanthropy, and within our communities and families alike. But courage requires humility and vulnerability – and as such, strong EQ is a must to amplify the impact of strong IQ.
Courage, character, and competence are some of the most vital characteristics of leaders. One must be able to not only recognize and acknowledge the unique difficulties and traumas that people have experienced throughout the past year – they must be able to empathize with authenticity, and be willing to drive change through both their words and their actions.
Remember: People don’t have a personal life and a professional life. They have one life . This has never been more evident than it is today. So, leaders must work to embrace the “whole person” of those on their teams, they must be both compassionate and empathetic to the realities their people are dealing with. Personal experiences and perspectives can no longer remain entirely walled off in someone’s professional persona.
In addition to greater empathy and EQ, the crises the country currently is facing requires leaders who are willing to be guided by their principles and values and to stand up for something.
It’s not enough anymore to “do things right” i.e., to execute. That’s the difference between a manager and a leader. Managers can make sure teams are “doing things right.” Leaders, however, make sure organizations are “doing the right thing,” which might not necessarily be the easy thing. And true leaders do not define the “right thing” from their own lens, rather they are all about the bigger picture, the greater good, the higher cause, and the sustained strategic impact.
As the workforce becomes younger and more diverse, they will be anxious to do the right thing and tackle social justice, systemic racism, unconscious bias, and other issues. The challenge for today’s leaders is to ensure that they have created an environment where discussion on these issues can occur in a productive, constructive, and sustainable way.
That last bit on sustainability is important. A true leader thinks beyond the short term and creates a culture that will outlast them and continue long after they’re gone. Because change doesn’t happen overnight.
Leadership is a choice
But change does indeed occur. In fact, change will happen. The decision to transform and lead is a choice. Think of something as seemingly entrenched in professional environments as the requirement to “put in face time.” It used to be that if you weren’t logging plenty of hours at your desk, in plain sight of the boss, you weren’t viewed as top talent. Never mind if you had already completed all your assignments and were simply killing time – you had to stay put until the boss went home.
This requirement around face time has gradually been revealed for the absurdity that it is, and there is less of an emphasis on it. Similarly, systemic bias and other inequities can be revealed for the barriers to optimal performance and a more just society that they are.
Will this transformation come from the top? Quite possibly. But it will also come from the organization at large, especially those willing to assert their leadership and demonstrate that a new, better way is possible. These constant actions of leadership we see all around us are proof positive that leadership is a choice – whether focused on unleashing the potential and performance of people and processes, both through their words and their actions.
There’s a saying that crisis develops leaders, but I think what it really does is reveal them. As we have come out of a turbulent 2020 and into 2021 that remains uncertain, leaders, current and emerging, will be needed to make progress – in every facet of our economy and society at large.
Inspired by my favorite quote from Gandhi, modern-day leaders are driven to be the change they wish to see in the world.
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