When was the last time you questioned yourself as a leader? As human beings, we can be a little sensitive to challenge. Challenge instantly requires us to defend or change our stance on whatever is being challenged and this is something we handle with varying degrees of grace. To handle challenge with grace requires flexibility that comes with such multifaceted assets as self-worth, confidence, wisdom, and humility. Whether we lead great corporations or small families, our roles as leaders of any description by nature require us to be able to accept, assess, and deal with challenges appropriately. Don’t they? So, what does that look like?
The title of this line of thinking today is inspired by a quote from the great John Maxwell – “He that thinketh he leadeth, and hath no one following, is only taking a walk.” I find John Maxwell one of the wisest and most endearing voices of our day, and this quote amused me whilst it hit home. I was listening to an audio recording in my car of an interview of John Maxwell by Nido Qubein at High Point University (see link at the bottom), and it became one of a number of needles from different directions that all seem to be presenting the same question for me. The intended title of this writing was something along the lines of “You Hold A Position of Leadership – But Are You Actually Leading?”. John Maxwell says it better.
I’ve recently been made familiar with the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon. This is when the thing you’ve just noticed, be it a word, a theory or a certain car, starts to crop up constantly. It’s EVERYWHERE. And it leads to the illusion that there’s a weirdness going on, a glitch in the matrix, that is serving you up the same thing constantly. Really all it is, is selective attention – when your brain picks up on something it thinks is awesome and you suddenly become more aware of it around you. My current glitch is this question – as a leader, are you actually leading? I see it in the current Zimbabwean history-in-the-making and its miraculous changes. I hear it from John Maxwell. And then Rachel Nyaradzo Adams brought it to me to in her TEDx talk entitled “A Crisis of Courage: Africa’s 21st Century Challenge” (see link at the bottom). Rachel is a feisty Zimbabwean I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (and being interviewed by), and with whom I’ve had some interesting conversations regards challenging ourselves in our comfort zones – her TEDx talk is no different. Her challenge is directed primarily at the youth of our continent, but the questions she asks are relevant to us all. She challenges, “Are you a leader of courage, or a leader of comfort?”.
And so today, let’s stick with that version of the question and ask ourselves what it takes to be a leader of courage, rather than of comfort.
It takes courage to withstand challenge. The word “withstand” means to remain undamaged or unaffected by; to resist. Yes, there are times when “withstand” is the right word. Today’s leaders are called to elevate themselves to a level of leadership previously untouched – that of stepping down from the pedestal and into the throng. That of examining the challenge and deciding whether it requires “withstanding”, meeting, or even more from us – introspection. When was the last time you questioned yourself as a leader? When was the last time you asked such uncomfortable questions such as whether you are current, present, or fully informed?
It takes courage to be introspective. To be introspective is to delve into the recesses where there is no responsibility but our own. Perhaps now is an appropriate time to remind ourselves that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather feeling its presence and doing it anyway. To question ourselves requires a healthy ability to distinguish between what is true and what is not. What is valuable, and what is not. What is helpful, and what is not. It requires us to think on a level where our egos maintain no illusion as to our strengths and deficiencies. It requires us to be humble.
It takes courage to be humble. To be humble is to have “a modest estimate of one’s importance”, and a whole bunch of other descriptives not comfortably associated with many leaders. It is counter-intuitive to many leaders to consider your own importance no higher than those you lead. And yet the most striking examples of positive leadership come from leaders humble enough to question their own correctness on a daily basis and who will “lower” themselves to interact with the people who put them there in the first place. Who put you where you are? Who gave you the position you hold? Who do you require to hold their roles so that yours exists? To be a leader, we require followers. Otherwise, we are only taking a walk. To be humble is not to place ourselves above those followers in terms of importance, and therefore to ask them for their input, their opinion, and their needs. Repeatedly.
It takes courage to observe and to listen; to absorb, process and act on what you learn. Having checked to see that there is, indeed, a following. To have “lowered” yourself from your position of leadership into that following, and to have asked for their challenge. It takes courage to observe that process and its products; to observe your own levels of comfort, to observe theirs, and to work on both – to challenge the status quo. Nothing grows in a comfort zone, and it is growth we’re after! It takes courage to ask questions about where you’re going, whether they see and understand the route and the journey, and whether they want to come with you. So many leaders don’t clearly explain the journey they envisage, check whether their followers are enthusiastic and on board with the plan, and provide provision for that journey in terms of sustenance. We all require feeding – as leaders, as team members, and as followers.
2018 IS a year of growth. I can feel it. Growth doesn’t happen in a comfort zone and by that summation, 2018 will be a year of discomfort. Perhaps that is our ultimate challenge as leaders – how we deal with discomfort. Perhaps that is where we need to first examine ourselves. Discomfort results from stretching. Discomfort results from the unknown. From entering a space with which we aren’t fully familiar and therefore aren’t fully in control. Discomfort requires us to assess how we deal with that lack of control, and whether we are willing to step into that space ourselves without being pushed. We deal with that discomfort with courage.
When was the last time you lowered yourself into the throng of people you believe follow you, asked for their challenge, were affected by it, and made changes based on that challenge? When was the last time you fed yourself as a leader? When was the last time you fed those you lead? Are you a leader of courage or of comfort? Are you leading, or are you just taking a walk?
by Christen Killick
21 January 2018
Interview of John Maxwell by Nido Qubein at High Point University
A Crisis of Courage: Africa’s 21st Century Challenge | Rachel Nyaradzo Adams | TEDxGaborone