"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." -John Quincy Adams
There are times where I notice certain themes emerge so strongly in the narrative of my life that I just have to stop and meditate over them, pray over them, think on them- and currently, the idea of leadership is one such theme that is emerging for me over and over in my life as of late.
As a creator- of work, of art, of words, of a business, and of, as I get older, an entire life that has the qualities, peace of mind, and direction of heart that I want it to have- self-leadership, I notice as I grow, has become a large part of who I am and what I do: making decisions that advance not just my life, but what I share with others, personally and through art by and large.
We tend to think that the ability to lead people comes from the ability to learn certain modules or strategies for leadership itself, maybe to follow certain steps to becoming a leader when we are required to do so, but I think the best leaders I can think of- from famous figures to those I've personally worked under- are those who are self-motivated and self-content, who lead from a place of heart and intuition that always touches something personal and deeper, as opposed to those who seem like their only intention is to get some job done for their own gain or well-being.
I like what Adams points to in the above quote, as leadership more as an organic quality that emerges from the way you live, the way you are. If your actions inspire others- not force them, or control them, or convince them, but inspire them naturally, you are a leader. Inspiration is something like love: if it happens to you at all, it is the realest experience you can have, because it is detectable only from the truest part of you. To be inspired you have to be light and open, free. And when you are free- unburdened, joyful, happy- you achieve.
You can train people, manage people, direct people- and these are necessary but not totally dependable pieces of leadership. If you can inspire, you do something special: you selflessly pass along something of a gift to other people that ignites something within them that makes them able to see themselves that they have what it takes, not that you would like them to do something. When life- whether it's at work, at home, in a family, to a spouse- becomes something that people want to participate in versus something they feel they have to, inspiration begins.
And if that inspiration manifests in their wanting to dream more, learn more, do more, and- most beautifully and importantly- become more, in their very character and from the very depth of their being, you are leader. There's nothing here that suggests leadership is imposed or forced by authority, but rather that it is exuded by them, as a quality of who they are: it does not depend on what they are trying to get others to achieve, but what they are achieving themselves, for selfless purposes, that others can simply detect- and be attracted to and uplifted by.
If I think of the best leaders I've ever worked for, or even of people whose innovation, perspective, and brilliance I have always admired, about whom I've read or studied or been inspired by, they are all people who exhibited a visionary drive not just for what they believed was important, but for people: for a genuine relational connection to the people whom they oversee or manage.
I think of this not just in workplace settings but in smaller groups as well: leaders in a family, leaders in a household, leaders in a group of friends, on a sports team. People who lead well, whether they are a husband to his wife or a wife to her husband, a parent to their child, or the CEO to a company, have a deeper emotional intelligence for the heart-level needs, desires, fears, and passions of other people, and are able to handle them gently and accordingly.
It's not just themselves they're looking out for. The most effective way to bring the best out of people is to yourself be- in ways where ego would have the average person try to assert their own beliefs or voice their own opinions selfishly- quiet and selfless. You have to be- not seem to be- the kind of person who has the self-awareness and emotional intelligence necessary to discern when it is best to talk and when it is best to listen; when it is good to give feedback and when its actually more effective to withhold it.
Present-mindedness works better than following a script or a module, and the only way to know that when you're leading other people is to be thoroughly practiced in it when you lead yourself through your own life. To mimic qualities of leadership and to trust your intuition to lead and innovate are two different things.
As I have been thinking more and more about leadership lately, I re-read a letter I had received and saved from the CEO of a very successful company I used to work for. I began working there when I was 24- it was my first 'real' job out of college, where I worked for almost a year before I decided to step down and go to Peru to teach. At not even three weeks into my first experience in corporate America, I had the pleasure of meeting this Harvard-educated gentleman at a happy hour: he was visiting offices in the region where I worked, and, upon seeing that he and myself were both enjoying Coronas, he sat down at the table right next to myself and three other women and began to make conversation.
And he asked each of us, starting with me: 'if you were the CEO of this company, what would you change about it?'
I remember thinking a couple of things at that point, and I don't exactly remember what I said in response, but he told me to email him and expound on my ideas- so the next day, on my lunch break, that's what I did.
We wound up exchanging several emails and talked about everything from Steve Jobs to NASA to the innovative corporate structure at Google to the importance of unconventional thinking in life and career, and with every response from him I learned more not from what we were talking about but that we were talking: I was a temporary entry-level employee trying to carry on something of an intelligent conversation with the former President of Folgers Coffee- and he somehow actually made me feel like I had good ideas. Like my voice was, even on some level, important. When I look back now, I see how truly important and encouraging that was for me at that point in my life.
When I left the company a year later, I received in the mail a hand-written letter from him two weeks before leaving the country, wishing me well and telling me that whatever I felt like I needed to do from the heart, I should do. I will never- I have never- forgotten that. I think sometimes it takes us years before we look back on people who have come into our lives- in whatever capacity, and for however long- and we realize what they have done as leaders to bring us closer not to their cause, but to ourselves. That is what a good leader does: sees how individual people work, sees what they need, and gives it to them.
I'm sure the CEO of the company I was working at for a handful of days didn't really need my advice on running it. And I'm sure he had much more important things to do than entertain my enthusiasm for intellectual conversation. It was really a very selfless thing, to make time to value one person like they were an important person. I think in hindsight, not just intellectually knowing this but truly feeling from-the-heart grateful for it has taught me a lot about valuing people.
To my pleasant surprise just last evening, the narrative of leadership emerged in my life again, this time spiritually, at the weekly service at my church. The message was that leaders are called to be people of integrity, character, strength, and service- this is what we are called to do as followers of Christ anyway, and when we are living in that way, leadership becomes part of our calling: in the workplace, in a marriage, in a friendship, in an acquaintanceship, in a random encounter- because it is constantly what we are doing with ourselves as we learn to allow our lives to be lead by a higher Love more powerful and creative than we are. We are to meet people where they are in non-judgement and we want, from the heart, the best for them, giving them the space and safety to unfold and open and become more.
The message was centered on three vital characteristics for any good leader to have: self-awareness, learning agility, and emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, knowing how your fundamental energy either inspires or drains others, and knowing when you are prideful and wrong, and graciously taking accountability.
As I grow I find self-awareness in others a hugely attractive quality- we naturally gravitate toward people who seem to know, humbly, who they are and what they were created for. Their sense of purpose may inspire our own sense of purpose. It is organic, not forced: they lead by being the thing they want others to become.
Learning agility is a persons' ability to innovate, to think creatively and curiously, to generate results when resources are low. This too requires present-mindedness: when mere directions no longer work, and something more than the materials given is necessary for progress, a good leader can imagine: think on the fly and successfully make things happen when circumstances would ordinarily dictate a less-than-satisfactory result.
So many scientists and artists I have loved and admired have this quality: a sort of brilliantly child-like way of looking at things anew and seeing them differently. This is imagination, the seeing of something from nothing, the faith in what is unseen based on inferences and wise connections made between what is seen.
Emotional intelligence, the third quality of leadership, is the ability to identify and manage not only our own emotions but the emotions of other people- and not to manipulate them, just to manage them: to be able to see what drives people, to be able to accomplish the very rare insight of looking at their hearts- not just their thoughts- and determining, non-judgmentally, how people work.
People so often think that intelligence- high IQ, or being 'book smart,' or well-educated- will be indicators of a successful life, but I think growing in wisdom has taught me something else. It's so important to know people, to love people, to determine how we work as individuals and collectively if we want to live happy, healthy, connected, successful lives.
Relationship depth and quality with others is invariably linked to the relationship depth and quality we have with ourselves- IQ, training, education, and any other formal or biological factors aren't the most indicative of success or good results when it comes to knowing the hearts of ourselves and others. As Christians this is our concern, and our concept of wisdom: the actual well-being of others, by seeing their hearts; what hurts them and what heals them, and from that root seeing the ability and opportunity for real, lasting transformation. It's something mere direction-giving and commanding can't take care of quite like genuinely inspiring people, leading them- to dream, learn, do, and become more.