This year taught me what it means to be a leader. I’ve grown up leading in church and college, and it came relatively easily to me, to be able to rally people together to organize a camp or complete a group project. But up till this year, I’d always seen being a leader as being a role model, an example for people to follow. I thought leadership required a certain caliber, the know-how for the position, and the ability to know what to tell people to do. This is true to a certain extent, but I’ve come to see leadership as so much more than that.
I’ve come to realise that what distinguishes a good leader from a great leader is that great leaders don’t just rally everyone around their vision. Great leaders give their vision to others. Great leaders give people a feeling of ownership, of empowerment. Great leaders bring out the best in people in every area of their life, challenging them to be their best as individuals, not as subordinates fulfilling a certain role.
I’ve learned this through the people I am incredibly privileged to follow. Being around these people makes me a better person. Even ten minute conversations with these great mentors leave me challenged and inspired. Observing the way they run meetings, handle difficult situations, make time to be present with people, or even stay back late after everyone else has left, is a crash course in what makes leaders great.
I clearly remember an occasion at work when our Executive Director took the time to wash our designer’s cup in the sink. That designer told that story later, half incredulous, half in awe at that simple gesture. She never forgot that incident, and it is encounters like these, I believe, that make people work over weekends or pull all-nighters to get the job done for the leaders they look up to and respect.
It’s the simplest things that win people’s hearts.
I’ve also learned this through the people I am incredibly privileged to lead. The highlights of my week that just went by were:
1) An intern telling me about how going through certain challenges taught her to appreciate her parents more, and being open to my encouragement to her that, “You should tell your parents that.” She did.
2) Our designer, who has been working with us for half a year, asking me if I could give her a ride back, after turning down my offers to drop her home countless times in the past, not wanting to ‘trouble’ me.
This may sound simple to some, but it’s things like these that hold a special place in my heart because it is in that moment you know that you’ve somehow been able to cross that invisible line of being a leader by title – to a person that people feel comfortable enough with to express things they wouldn’t express to just anyone else. It’s in conversations after work hours that you realise… this work relationship has become a personal relationship. You’re more than colleagues, you’re friends, and you look out for each other.
Some days I beat myself up over the way I could have completed a certain task better, and then a colleague sends an e-mail telling me that something I did or said inspired them. And it hits me – being a leader is not about proving how good you are at the job and that’s why you should lead the troops. It’s really about being able to relate to people, to meet them where they are, and to inspire them to be the best they can be. In fact, I believe that great leaders raise up followers who are more skilled, more talented, and more capable than them.
So my two goals for the year ahead in the area of leadership are: to listen more, and to be more present with people.
What about you? What have you learned this year about what it means to lead?