How to Encourage Everyone to Be a Leader

Leadership is too important to leave to Management.

Jake Wilder
Sep 19, 2020 · 6 min read

“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves,” according to Stephen Covey. If leadership is encouraging people see their own potential, challenging the status quo of today, and helping others achieve a better vision for tomorrow, you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader.

The problems that most of our companies face today are built on a lack of leadership from the ground level. They’re the result of slow, bureaucratic processes that promote hierarchy over agility. As Albert Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Our problems won’t be solved by the leadership of a few people — especially those at the top of the organization.

Instead, we need to encourage everyone to be leaders. Which is good, because you’re already a leader.

If you’ve ever helped someone see their potential to make a difference, then you’re a leader. If you’ve ever stood up to the existing system when something didn’t seem right, then you’re a leader. And if you’ve ever sacrificed to help the greater good, solved a problem in a new way, or initiated steps to strengthen a relationship, then you’re a leader.

Even once. You’re a leader.

No one’s a leader all the time. Lincoln made plenty of mistakes. But we’re all leaders sometimes.

The problem is that most organizations don’t encourage these behaviors. They discourage the leader and reward the follower. Through operating instructions, procedures, and a do-what-you’re-told mentality, they exchange people’s willingness to stand up and lead for the illusion of stability.

But its nothing more than an illusion. No company can sustain high performance when only 5% of people think independently. If we’re going to meet the challenges of the future — or even the challenges of today — we need everyone to stand up and lead.

A common answer is that organizations need to empower their employees. It sounds good in theory. Empower people into leadership and sit back while they start leading.

But when typical organizations just start pushing authority down, it doesn’t result in leadership. It results in chaos. Throughout the early 2000s, many banks and mortgage brokers empowered their finance professionals to sign people up for high-risk loans. The 2008 financial crisis was largely a result of giving these employees far too much freedom with far too little guidance. Empowerment, without the right level of investment, can lead to disastrous results.

Most empowerment programs fail because they’re just that — programs. They’re a temporary fad that management throws together in a half-hearted attempt to increase delegation. It’s disingenuous to expect legions of employees to stand up and lead because management decides to start preaching a different message one day.

It also seems ridiculous that management believes they can encourage leadership through direction. If you’re telling someone to lead, are they really leading? If management has the authority to empower employees, but employees can’t empower themselves, who really has the power?

It’s also demeaning. If your boss said that she was going to empower you, what would be your response? I’m guessing you’d tell her (or at least think to yourself) that if she could just stop disempowering you, everything would be just grand.

Empowerment isn’t the answer. Everyone’s already a leader. We don’t need to empower them to lead. We just need to stop disempowering them.

One of the reasons that Disney has such tremendous customer support is that every employee has the freedom to achieve the mission. Their employees are cast members. They’re fully trained that the top priority is to create happiness for the Guests and given the skills to deliver on that mission. Then, Disney turns them all loose to figure out the best way to deliver magical moments to each Guest.

Contrast Disney’s cast members with Subway’s sandwich artists. While Disney expects their cast members to act and adapt according to various situations, Subway expects the opposite. Artists typically operate with individual expression. Yet exercising their individual expression through sandwiches likely wouldn’t result in long-term employment.

And no one thinks outstanding customer service when they think about Subway.

People need to connect to the mission. Every employee needs to feel that they’re a part of accomplishing something that’s bigger than themselves. But once people have the clarity to understand the mission and the competence to get there, they need to control their own path.

When people have the freedom to find a better way, they usually will.

Steve jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” And like most things, he’s right. The ability to drive change is one of the key facets of leadership.

But innovation also creates the conditions for leaders to develop. Companies that invest in innovation and creativity are much better suited to encourage leadership than those that prioritize the status quo.

One certainty of leadership is that people will make mistakes. An inherent result of trying new things is that they don’t always work out. If they do, then there’s a good chance that your aspirations are too low.

Consequences drive behavior. Management can tell people that it’s okay to take risks, but no one will believe them until someone fails and they see how the company reacts. If employees are punished for taking risks, they’ll stop taking risks. It’s as simple as that.

However, if companies celebrate those risks and show their appreciation to those willing to try something new, people will continue to move forward.

Good management knows that their job isn’t to prevent people from taking risks. It’s to make it safe for people to take them.

Acknowledge that everything will not always go smoothly. Don’t put people in situations where one misstep leads to an unrecoverable problem. And when new ideas fall short, recognize that the biggest priority is helping people move forward in a better way. In the prophetic words of Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” said Ernest Hemingway. Trust is a force multiplier. When someone trusts in you, you have more confidence in your abilities and are committed to showing people that trust is well deserved.

Conversely, when people don’t feel trusted, they operate from a basis of fear. They second-guess their own choices and paralyze themselves through indecision. They quickly revert to the safety of followership and doing what they’re told.

When you’re candid with people, you demonstrate trust they they’ll to handle information responsibly. When you step back and let them handle a situation, you show them that you trust their judgment and abilities. And when you respond well to failure, you show people that you trust them to learn from it and grow.

When you show people that you trust them, they’re better able to demonstrate the behaviors that will help them earn trust in others. And leadership is nothing more than trust.

“A life isn’t significant except for its impact on other lives,” said Jackie Robinson. And indeed, as many of us consider the accomplishments that will define our lives, it will be the people that define our legacy. Regardless of the companies we’ve built or the products we’ve developed, our lasting impact on the world will be in our ability to invest in people and develop future leaders.

A few people at the top can no longer solve the challenges facing most of our companies. We need everyone thinking independently, trying new things, and pushing the organization to respond within changing times. In short, we need everyone to act like the leaders that they are.

It’s easy to try to compromise — to try to preach empowerment while still encouraging everyone to follow the procedure and listen to your instructions. Yet that path is destined for failure. When you treat people like followers, they’ll act like followers.

And when you treat people like leaders, they’ll act like leaders.

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