For the last year and a half of college, I have had the opportunity to learn and grow as part of the Warren Bennis Scholars program. It is a university-wide initiative offered by the Office of the Provost through the Marshall (Business) School’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, and was named after Dr. Bennis, whose book On Becoming A Leader was top of our reading list. Since, we have researched leadership through perspectives ranging from Adam Grant to Peter Singer, Tony Judt, Dale Carnegie, and Joseph Jaworski. We have attended numerous talks, led discussions amongst ourselves, and challenged ourselves on the “ever-fabled” leadership retreat.
With my final semester approaching, I wanted to take the time and summarize my findings on leadership thus far. Being a leader, to me, is simultaneously one of our most common, and yet least talked about, journeys. We see people in leadership positions all the time; more than that, most of us work under them. At some point, we ourselves either aspire to leadership, or find inspiration in our leaders. Why is it, then, that so many of our discussions surrounding leadership remain firmly in the realm of gossip or complaint?
Like other passages of growth, leadership takes practice. While a large part of this practice stems from experience, I believe that consistent discourse and reflection also contribute greatly to understanding the journey. One of my greatest emotional takeaways from the Bennis program has been recognizing the drive to do better, to become better people, in my peers. Examining the concept of leadership is something I encourage everyone to do, both alone and together. This exploration will connect us in ways that are fundamentally human – answering, for ourselves and each other, who we are and who we want to be.
With that, I’d like to look at the three things I’ve discovered about leadership thus far, and what I’ll be doing with them moving forward.
#1: Put yourself first
Good leadership looks different for everyone. One of the defining traits of Dr. Bennis that I’ve learned about secondhand was his penchant for questions – he asked deep, introspective questions of the people he surrounded himself with. He was a fantastic listener. His behavior invited others to explore themselves. He remembered details about their lives and followed up with them. In this sense, he was so reliable that he could comfortably challenge those around him to grow, and even be known for doing so.
I have many images of what it means to possess wisdom. Some of them are likely common. They always feature a good listener, someone who focuses more on the other than the self, and therefore someone who must be so sure of themselves that they have no need for reassurance. This quality is what I recognize in my parents sometimes – how they let me lead the conversation, how they refrain from interjecting with their own comments, how they always begin by asking me about myself. I’ve seen it in some teachers, in even fewer friends, and in every single fictional mentor I’ve looked up to. Good listening is a core tenet of servant leadership, and it’d most definitely make me very likable.
But how do I get to that point?
It seemed counter-intuitive at the start, but I believe that the journey begins by putting oneself first. Realizing and accepting that I’ll always be on my own has been difficult, as has becoming aware of just how much I rely on others. Of course, this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t rely on others. But somehow I surprised myself with just how averse I was to the thought of relying on myself.
There are many mysteries about the self that really have no need to remain mysteries at all. One of the most valuable exercises I’ve been encouraged to do is to choose, on my own, the values I’d like to live by. My answers this year look incredibly different – happiness, for one, tops the list where I might have thought it selfish to value this before. And it’s been the most challenging value to practice since. But until I’m able to fully listen to myself, to validate my own self-worth, and to accept that I’ll always stand on my own, it seems even more of a challenge to fully devote my attention to someone else in the time we have together.
So, moving forward, I’ll remember to attend to my own needs first. I can’t decide anyone else’s journey but my own, as they say, but neither can anyone else. There’s no reason to pretend anyone will be more important to me than myself. The great listeners, in understanding themselves best, allow others to do the same.
#2: It’s not about the followers
This is the question: can one be a leader if they have no followers? For a long time, I’ve understood it as a rephrasing of the perennial tree in the forest metaphor. Is the basic criteria for leading that one actually has people to lead? It seems common sense to think so. Many examples of leadership involve action – hence, the CEO of an organization, or the principal of a school. The leadership is implied by the position as stated on one’s business card, in itself representative of the people you’re in charge of, the hierarchy (blatant or not). Other examples of leadership revolve around influence or, more specifically, the number of people you’re influencing. Both are inevitably results-oriented.
Much less talked about is the concept of leadership as an end-unto-itself, wherein the becoming is a lifelong journey and its proof is not quantitative. After all, what does it mean to be a follower? In following, does one not still remain oneself? Therefore, the barriers to leadership, the lines between leader and follower, are constructed. When discussing action, the issue of power often comes into play. But when we reframe leadership to mean a way of being, this tension dissolves. The dynamic is no longer leader vs. follower, but self vs. self. Everyone is open to experiencing moments of leadership, and becoming a leader is simply the practice.
Naturally, it seems impractical to assume this framework all the time. Our communities are established in a way that requires hierarchy, and where progress can only be linear. But what does it mean for leadership to be about the followers anyway? Do good leaders have followers, or people who’ve, in this moment, agreed to be on their team? I’d like to argue that there exists a difference.
Moving forward, I’d like to stop needing proof that I’m a leader. It is not through anyone else’s eyes that I become one but my own. If this is the case, then I should not need anybody around to follow me on my journey. Being a leader means multiplicity, and actions have more than one real author. Just as I am self, the other is also self, and together we are more.
#3: Leading is a vulnerable thing
I have always found it interesting that power and vulnerability are so often thought to be in opposition. The underdog story is beloved by all, and yet the characteristics of the underdog hold true in society. Cynicism, perhaps more than ever, serves as our shield, though it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is everyone’s trying to shield themselves from.
What does being vulnerable look like? With the simplest metaphor, it can mean to live without a shield. It is particularly charming to witness people in these moments. Our collective gut feeling leads us to root for these people. Protagonist after protagonist, we want to relate and we, too, want to triumph.
Except that the parallel narrative equates triumph with completing a journey. Once vulnerable, the hero is now invulnerable (or at least much less vulnerable). Once the honor of being a leader is ascribed, they have now inherited the responsibility of being infallible. It’s not a goal that reflects reality, but the narrow story of success we’re used to seeing.
To be a leader is, in part, to challenge this mindset. Though the words flow well, our journey does not look like a “road to success”. We are not linear beings, and thus success is not an end goal. From what I have seen, success looks much more like the attempt, a constant revisiting of vulnerability as though to be afraid is proof that we are growing.
So, moving forward, I must reflect on my journey in order to catch myself in this process. I am excited to now look for challenges and to seek refuge in both failure, and the fear of it. Beyond this, I will gather compassion for others in their moments of vulnerability. After a while, I think it will not be such a bad place to be.