What Makes a Leader?

What does it take to be a leader? Is it being the person at the top? The boss? The CEO? No, that’s merely having authority, and it says nothing about your skills as a leader. In Simon Sinek’s words: “It’s easy to think that leadership is about being in charge. It’s not; it’s about taking care of those in your charge.”

Being a leader is a position of privilege. One that often comes with more recognition and monetary compensation than those that work for you. In return, a leader takes on responsibility and rises to whichever challenge is thrown their way. More importantly, a real leader doesn’t throw those who place their trust in her under the bus, and she doesn’t shift blame. She takes responsibility for the things that go wrong under their leadership, whether those things are inside or outside of her control.

PORTRAIT - David Foster Wallace.png

“The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.”

—David Foster Wallace, from his essay 'Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate', collected in 'Consider The Lobster and Other Essays'.

It’s about placing the wellbeing of others before your interests. And, when you look at it that way, leadership starts to look a little a different. You realise it’s not about being on top and whatever glory might come with it. It’s about having the backs of the people that work with you because, in truth, a leader doesn’t have people that work for him or under him, he has people that work with him.

The people that work for you can do outstanding work when they feel safe, and they know that they’re not a disposable resource, but valued members of a community. A community that will still call them out on their mistakes, but a community that has the backs of those within it regardless of those mistakes.

A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.
— David Foster Wallace

Mistakes are how we learn, it’s how we grow, and a wonderful thing to do is owning up to the mistakes we make. But, it’s one thing to own up to a personal mistake, it’s another to take on responsibility and find solutions for the mistakes of a collective or for the mistake of an individual within that collective.

Interestingly, you don’t have to be the boss or on top to be a leader. Each day will give you the opportunity, and it’s up to you whether you rise to the occasion. A leader is someone that speaks up for others but knows when to step away to let others speak. A leader doesn’t continually place their own interests first.

On a small scale it means letting the car trying to get into your lane cut in—hey, we’re all trying to get places. It means holding the lift even though it might cause you to be late. It means giving someone directions even though you just want to go home. It means making another pot of coffee when you’ve drank the last cup; buying another box of tea when you’ve used the last bag; taking the trash out, instead of stomping another piece in, thinking the next person will deal with it.

It means not leaving messes for others to deal with, even when they’re not your messes in the first place. It’s a daily practice. You will fail. But, that’s okay, leaders aren’t born, they’re made.

 

written by Julie Smits

 


Notes

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Inspired by Simon Sinek's book "Leaders Eat Last" and his many lectures and speeches, which you can find around youtube, simply type in: Simon Sinek.