Friday, March 12, 2010

Leaders Aren't Special: Don't Be Intimidated

I find at times I am reluctant to call myself a leader. The reason is so many of the books and speakers on leadership talk of it in context to extraordinary leaders in history, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and others. Or, they focus on elite athletes, winning coaches or CEOs of the world's largest corporations.

Furthermore, the described qualities of a great leader are ideals that most of us are unable to sustain in whole or in part: visionary, passionate, servant, charismatic, influencer, principled, etc. Of course, most of us have known -- and some of you may be -- individuals that deeply embody these qualities. But I think over-romanticizing these qualities of leadership may make us overlook the fact that many great leaders do not have all of these qualities, and in fact may have very few of them.

I think it's also safe to say some of the world's worst leaders had the same qualities we tend to ascribe to great leaders, as well. Hitler, for example, was visionary, passionate, charismatic, influential and principled -- though few today would agree with his vision or principles.

I believe a great leader can be not particularly visionary, even-keeled, introverted and unassuming. You probably know some strong, effective organizational leaders that match this description. They're not dynamic, charismatic or especially passionate in temperament, yet maybe they have integrity or intelligence that others respect and admire.

So, in my view, it's not really personality traits or qualities that define a leader. A leader is really just someone who can enroll others in accomplishing an objective. Leaders in the most basic sense are those who can influence the behavior of others such that willingly they choose to follow them.

Keeping that in mind, one of the key qualities of leadership is the ability to ask. Many people who end up volunteering for a cause, for example, say the only reason they choose to do so was because someone asked them. One of the most basic leadership behaviors, then, is simply asking someone to do something -- that is, making a request.

Now, that may seem obvious, but how often have you found yourself suffering in silence, taking on the entire burden of a project? Because of my perfectionist tendencies and the pride I take in completing a project on my own, one of the hardest things for me to do is ask for help. Yet, I realize, if I want to be a leader, I have to let go of that mindset.

I'm not sure why it's so difficult to ask for help, but for whatever reason, it's not the first thought that comes to mind when taking something on. Interestingly, I find that most times I ask others to join me in a project, they actually want to be a part of it. The reality is, most of us have an innate desire to be of service. So when someone asks for our help, we are flattered and want to contribute.

Leadership doesn't need to be intimidating. It can be as simple as making a request.

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