A Dirty, Little Leadership Secret

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Most of us never realize our full potential to lead. This choice is both understandable and costly, and that cost is rising daily, as the complexity of the planet’s challenges grows. For the most part, we don’t need better leaders, we need more of them. Meanwhile, the “leadership bench” is full.

One of the barriers to getting off this bench is the widespread delusion that you must already be a cocksure, resource-controlling, corner-office-inhabiting leader to have real impact – the myth that leadership begins with power. This myth is fueled by the way we tell our stories. The lives of our greatest leaders impress us, inspire us on our best days, but often feel highly remote. Would I have the courage to sneak my poorly trained, minimally armed, underfed army across the frigid Delaware River in the middle of the night to take on the most elite fighting force in the world? Maybe. But first I have to make the mental leap from my cubicle to leader of a revolutionary army with all odds stacked against it.

Part of the problem is that we tend to meet the stars of our favorite leadership narratives at or near the height of their power. This makes sense. We meet many of them in grade school or earlier, in sanitized children’s books or through the urgent lens of a backseat window. Who’s that man on the horse? Why did they name that street after a Junior King? This line of questioning rewards the storyteller’s brevity and certainty. Martin Luther King Junior made America a better place for all kinds of people. Why? Because he was a hero. Why? Because that’s what heroes do.

Even later, in high school and college, when our primary job is to make sense of the world, institutions that must sell us on their worldviews tend not to dilute them with the uncertainty and missteps of protagonists who must learn how to lead. Often there isn’t time. “Survey” courses that span centuries leave little room for the formation of individual character. It is entirely logical to conclude, therefore, that leaders are born, not made, that Washington simply strolled into this world with the tools to birth a nation.

But their journeys towards impact began decades before these seminal events, and these early chapters are rich – sometimes richest — in their instructive value. If we’re going to find our way off the leadership bench, we’re going to have to talk and learn about leadership in new ways. We’re going to have to tell a dirty, little secret about extraordinary leaders, which is that few actually wait for formal authority to begin influencing events. A shorthand for this decision is “courage,” but it is a specific, applied courage that borders on audacity. The audacity of simply starting. We call it making the decision to lead.

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