You Call Yourself a Leader?
I froze. I knew what I should say, but felt a level of uneasiness as I thought about giving the answer. Say yes, you idiot, I thought, just say YES!
My interviewer paused and gave me a look that was a mix between did he really say no? and well shit, now what?
“No,” I repeated.
I guess it was a question I shouldn’t have been so baffled by. You see, I was in the midst of an on-site interview, and on the surface, it’s a fair question.
“So, do you consider yourself a leader?”
I guess it’s a fair question; I’d want to check if a potential colleague of mine exemplifies characteristics of leadership: drive, ownership, buzzword, integrity, great communication skills, and a great sense of buzzword.
…and I answered no.
In an attempt to rectify my interviewer’s confusing facial expression (and my chances with this company), I started to explain.
The ‘Leader’ Label
The terms ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ are now everywhere. It’s click-bait. They’re all over book titles and blogposts, they’re in way too many quotes that find their way onto my social media feeds, and can be found on every single LinkedIn page. “Being a leader” has lost its meaning. To be completely honest, 25-year-old me can’t truly say I know what its true meaning is, but I can tell something’s awry. That’s part of the reason why I hesitated when this question surfaced in this interview.
In general, I see two misconceptions about leadership:
1. Leadership is not power. It’s servitude.
At its core, leadership has become synonymous with power. We have failed to tease the differences between a position of authority — corporate leaders, managers, politicians, or your ‘team lead’ at work— and that of a true leader. The real leaders in my life operate under a charter to serve the interest of team members and build an environment of safety, trust, inspiration, and success. This is what CEOs, entrepreneurs, community leaders, teachers, and politicians should strive for.
This service need not originate from those with authority in a group. It should, but in fact it often doesn’t; many times, those without ‘authority’ rise and take risks to take on this charter mentioned above. That’s the missing key here — authority does not beget leadership. Just because one is a CEO, a senator, or a teacher does not make them a leader.
What irks me about the proliferation of the word ‘leader’ in our society today is the notion of it being deriving from power and authority.This feels wrong. Simon Sinek has a marvelous TED talk that digs into this further.
2. Leadership is not self-appointed. It is bestowed by others.
This charter of leadership requires that individuals give up some decision-making to someone (or some people) to make important decisions and foster a desirable environment. This implies that a cognizant choice is made by peers to empower a leader. In other words, a leader is allotted his or her position from their peers. It is bestowed onto him or her from others.
This second point gets to the heart of my uneasiness with answering my interviewer if I consider myself a leader. Fundamentally, I don’t think anyone can declare themselves a leader. Would Martin Luther King call himself a leader? Gandhi? Rosa Parks? Bill Gates? I don’t think so. Rather, these folks’ actions exemplify their service in fighting for a more just and successful environment and has led us to characterize them as ‘leaders.’
All this is to say that (1) leadership is very different than authority and (2) not a label one can place on his or herself.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all could build and foster communities of trust, inspiration, innovation, and success — if we all cared to exemplify this sort of servitude? Well, we’ve established that leadership doesn’t need fancy authority-filled titles or a self-written ‘leader’ name tag. That means people like you and I can step up to work towards these goals.
What are you waiting for?