Thoughts on Leadership

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

At the beginning of my career, I worked at a non-profit. Partway through my stint there, my boss had a nervous breakdown and took a sudden leave of absence. If you've had any experience working with a non-profit, then you know that the tyranny of the urgent reigns supreme. Cash-strapped and with insufficient time to hire someone new before the busy season began, the board of directors voted to promote me to her position. So, there I was, suddenly the interim director of a busy department in an international NGO, overseeing about 180 employees and volunteers across five continents. I was 19 years old.

At the time, I had never considered myself a leader or even entertained the idea that I had the capacity to be. However, other people more than twice my age had decided to put me in that position regardless of my opinions of myself. At that point, I decided to dive headfirst into the subject of leadership to learn all I could about it. It is a subject that has held my attention since.

What makes a leader? Is it what they accomplish in their roles? Is it who chooses to follow them? Is it how they define their vision? Is it relative to age? Does it mean staying politically correct? Speaking their mind? A tightrope balance somewhere in between? Are leaders born or are leaders made? Moreover, is it something they can choose to be or something that other people have to choose for them?

Years ago, while studying this topic, I came across a book called Becoming A Woman of Influence: Making a Lasting Impact on Others. I honestly don't remember much about this book except for one story that has stuck with me through the years: in one chapter, the author discusses her intense jealousy over another writer who happens to be much younger and more successful than she is. The two writers end up at an event together and the younger one thanks the older writer for having such a huge influence on her success. It turns out that the older author had taught the writing classes the younger author had taken in college. She attributed much of her career to what she had learned in those classes. The older author was stunned. She was nursing jealousy and animosity over someone who had learned from and succeeded because of HER.

That little anecdote taught me this: a true leader has done their job when the people they are leading or teaching can go on to do bigger and better things as a result. Your interns and associates should be able to go on and achieve greater success as a result of learning from you. Being stingy with your knowledge won't help anyone in the long-run, including yourself. What kind of legacy are you leaving?

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