Leadership may be pursued and exercised without a single title to your name. As I think about good leaders, three aspects of “leadership” stand out to me right now, among the many that are available. Leadership involves the developed capacity to engage in genuine listening, pro-active direction, and graceful persistence. Insofar as these are recognized, taken on, and advanced, leadership grows and deepens.
Genuine listening is more than looking attentive while someone else is speaking. It means being fully in the moment, actively thinking about and absorbing the other person’s words, intentions, and actions. We know people who seem to be fully engaged when they speak with us, as if there was nothing else in the world more important. Politicians have a knack for doing this, as do teachers in general, or even those who successfully wait on tables in restaurants. It’s a developed habit of attention, and good leaders know that such input provides the true substance of what they work with as leaders.
Pro-active direction refers to that unique combination of calculated risk-taking, decision-making, and follow-through that is the exercise of leadership and that may either work very well or fail miserably. This aspect is the difference between those who just think they know better, but don’t do anything to move forward in making it happen, and those who think they might know better, and who take steps in that direction in order to find out. Without somebody doing something, somebody else will, and whatever direction you had envisioned goes off somewhere else. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Leadership rests on the willingness to make the choices and take the actions necessary to move a vision, the things that matter, forward.
Graceful persistence describes the long-term intentionality that is carried onward step by step, at each corner and through each relevant situation. It’s the decisions, conversations, suggestions, challenges, celebrations, hires, budget projections, and evaluation measures that bring a bearing, priority, or goal to life. It is done quietly and inexorably, proceeding with measured stubbornness balanced with tact and a graceful disposition. Great social movements start that way. De La Salle started the Brothers that way. Even the Bible has stories that illustrate this characteristic (Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-8). Jesus knew it. Things are accomplished through thoughtful, well-received, respectful, consistent, nimble, focused, small actions of all kinds that create a current of activity leading to the desired end.
Of course, one can recognize and agree with these three characteristics of leadership without fully possessing any of them. Knowing is different than doing; but knowing helps. These are areas of potentially acquired mastery that each person brings to life in his/her own context and according to his/her own talents and personality. We have to bring them to life in our own little world first. As they begin to be developed, other challenges and opportunities will call us forward, and the whole thing becomes much more interesting. It may even be that we are elected or invited to a position of leadership. But that would simply be the ticket into a new game, and not the game itself. The real fun happens on the field.
In the picture above, I think the real leader is the last penguin.