The Reluctant Leader
For reasons I don’t fully understand, I have been in leadership positions for most of my professional career. I find it odd, because I don’t necessarily think of myself as a leader and prefer to work independently on solitary tasks like research, writing and composing.
My first role as a leader came when I was 14, and a group of my friends thought it would be neat to form a rock and roll band. I was the best guitar player and could sing, so it seemed natural to suggest what songs to work up and how others should approach their parts. Surprisingly, my band mates went along with this.
That leads to my first observation about leadership: Leaders are competent, at least on a relative basis. You don’t stay a leader for long if you can’t perform, or can’t reasonably fake it.
Speaking of faking it, the experience of running a professional rock group in the 1960s and 70s honed my skills in improvisation. In my role as the “front man,” I found myself entertaining a room full of drunks at 2 a.m. and trying not to insult people or otherwise incite a riot. I learned what songs to play and what songs not to play, how to calm nerves and break up fights, and how to keep an amusing banter going with people who weren’t always in the best of shape to pay attention.
This leads to my second observation about leadership: Leaders are improvisers. They’re good at making things up as they go along and adapting to change. You can be a rigid and inflexible leader, but you probably won’t last too long unless you have a gun or a really big army.
Time and time again, it’s been communication skills that have saved my bacon. I like to read and write, and there are a surprising number of people who don’t. Because of my years as a music front man, I feel comfortable with public speaking. Lots of people don’t enjoy that, either.
Hence my third observation about leadership: Leaders are effective communicators. They don’t necessarily have to be polished speakers and writers, but they have to be able to articulate a vision, goals and strategies, and motivate others to take action. Many leaders I admire are wonderful storytellers who have genuine empathy for others and know how to connect with the daily lives of people. It’s inspiring to be in their presence.
These characteristics of leaders are well and good, but at the end of the day somebody has to do something. My daughter, a recent veteran of Teach for America, told me she was amazed at how little purposeful work one had to do to be recognized by one’s peers as a leader. So many people talk about doing something, or plan on doing something, or consult endlessly about doing something that they don’t have any time left to actually do anything.
This leads to a fourth observation about leadership: Leaders are doers. They get things done. The best leaders lead by example. I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am by the leaders I run into from all walks of life who are out in their communities working alongside others to achieve a common goal. You don’t always hear about them in the media, they aren’t out there picking up awards, but their neighbors and friends know who they are. They are the lifeblood of healthy communities.
When I was younger and traveling on the road with my band, we used to have a saying: “Everybody gets a taste.” You couldn’t keep the group together and functioning at a high level unless all of the players felt valued, were listened to, and got a chance to shine now and then. There are “star driven” bands, of course, but ours was a group effort, and the leader had to walk a fine line between maintaining control and allowing for a measure of creative anarchy.
That brings me to a fifth and final observation about leadership: Leaders recognize and encourage the contributions of others. They are reticent to capture the sun themselves but are content to let it shine on others. In a real sense, they disappear into leadership.
I’m often suspicious of people who crave to be leaders. It can mask a lust for power, and we all know where that can lead. I am attracted to the reluctant leader, the person with a deep sense of mission and social responsibility who is willing to step up to the plate and swing at the ball, but who doesn’t need to dominate the game. Looking back, I never consciously set out to be the leader, but I found myself in those positions because there was something that needed to get done, and I felt a responsibility for doing it.
Somebody has to do the work. It might as well be you.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the
official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.