Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
The world doesn't have enough leaders.
Sure, there is no shortage of people who hold positions of power and authority, or who are put on a pedestal and proclaimed a leader - by the media, their supporters, or often themselves. But they aren't leaders. Actual leadership is in short supply.
The word leader is tossed around pretty casually these days. CEOs and politicians are described as leaders; sometimes celebrities or athletes are, as well. You often hear words like "innovative," "influential," and "accomplished" when the topic of leadership is raised, as if success is a qualification for leadership. But are those people willing to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to truly be leaders? Will a CEO give up their job (or their bonus) for something they believe is important? Will a politician risk the outcome of an election to say what they believe, no matter what voters might think? Who is willing to risk everything they have achieved for a cause greater than themselves?
Leaders teach, guide, support and mentor people - they influence and shape the actions that others take, but don't necessarily prescribe how things must unfold. -- Brian Reich
Nelson Mandela was a leader - not because of his political status, his ability to forgive those who wronged him, or because he could deliver a great speech that inspired others. He was a leader because he was willing to sacrifice his own personal wellbeing to help accomplish a larger goal. He always stayed true to his vision, no matter the obstacles that he encountered, and remained committed to the causes he believed in so deeply.
Perhaps the best example came in 1964 when Mandela was on trial and facing a possible death sentence. He delivered a four hour defense of his beliefs and explanation of his actions, then finished by saying: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." The stakes for Nelson Mandela could not have been higher. His beliefs could not have been more clear. And through 27 years in prison, his commitment never wavered - an act of bravery and demonstration of leadership that inspired and motivated others to take action.
Simon Sinek believes leadership emerges from understanding the 'why' behind your work. "People don't buy what you do; people buy why you do it," he is fond of saying. And as he explains in his TED talk, the very way we think about our motivation isn't quite right:
"Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by "why" I don't mean "to make a profit." That's a result. It's always a result. By "why," I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?"
For the most part, I agree: The 'why' is what motivates each of us, as individuals, to make a certain choice or take a particular path in our life. A collective in the case of an organization is important as well -- so the brand and priorities are clear and understandable to those who choose to follow.
But leadership is about more than branding and awareness. Our individual actions are significant, but we are far more likely to drive change working together. That's why leadership is about direction and change. Leaders motivate others to take their own actions, to take responsibility for their own behavior, and not simply follow others - but to do so with a shared purpose and common objective in mind. Leaders teach, guide, support and mentor people - they influence and shape the actions that others take, but don't necessarily prescribe how things must unfold.
I believe the key element of leadership is thinking differently, and helping others to do the same. Following is relatively easy. The leaders that I admire, that I am inspired by, don't tell us what to think -- they help us to understand how to think differently about the challenges we face.
That seems easy enough... so why aren't we all leaders?
Because we are afraid. Afraid to be wrong. Afraid to make someone angry. Afraid to try something different. We are afraid to change. We are afraid of change. Fear prevents people from doing a lot of things - especially leading.
The people who I am inspired by, who I consider to be leaders, are fearless. I am motivated by their drive. I am inspired by their willingness to fight when others are content to back away. I don't have to agree with their perspective or share their vision - heck, I don't even have to like them. But their ability to act earns my respect, commands my attention, and defines them to me as leaders.
Not surprisingly, I guess, many of the people I see earning the mantle of leadership are super-wealthy: Bill and Melinda Gates. Elon Musk. Michael Bloomberg. Whether it's through philanthropy, innovation or politics, they are not afraid to take risks. They aren't concerned about losing their job. They aren't afraid to make people uncomfortable, or even angry, if their efforts help to realize a larger, more important goal. They don't feel the need to compromise, to settle for something less, when it comes to their larger vision for the world.
But leaders aren't all super wealthy. There are also leaders whose names I don't know, who don't hold any sort of position of power (or position of any kind) at all. But every day, all around the world, those people are standing up against oppression, demanding equal rights, challenging the established ways that our society operates. They don't have great resources - in fact, they may not have any resources to speak of at all. They simply don't have anything to lose. They are willing to stand up for what they believe, sacrifice whatever they have, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.
What about the rest of us? We are stuck somewhere in the middle. We believe that change is needed, that there are issues and causes that deserve our attention - but we are not motivated enough to sacrifice our own comfort. We achieve success or hold a platform that affords us the opportunity to help inspire and motivate others, but we become too focused on maintaining that success, instead of re-investing it to achieve even more.
Leaders drive change. They motivate, and help and support, others to take action. They make things happen. And when they do, they help to shape the future of our society. We don't have enough leaders right now - and that's a problem.
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