Looking to others for examples of how to lead can be a helpful place to start, but for leadership to be authentic and sustainable, looking outside ourselves for leadership models has to be treated as a starting place. Unfortunately it’s commonly not only a starting place, but an ending place.
We look to Churchill or Mandela or Shackleton, or Ang Sang Su Ki, we hear their inspiring words, and read about their amazing acts of leadership, usually against overwhelming odds, and we take them for our leadership models. When we’re called upon to lead in difficult circumstances what can often be the next step it to ask ourselves, “What would this person or that person do in my circumstances?”
It's All About You
The problem is, it’s not this person or that person in the difficult circumstance, it’s you, and the single chance you have to lead yourself and others through the difficulty to a different, more favorable state, is to use what you have, what you bring to the table. Anything else is of no use to you in this particular moment and circumstances. What Churchill said or Shackleton did may be a source of initial inspiration, but then what? Modeling your leadership on someone else, whoever it may be, and whatever they may have done insures that, at best, you’ll do a convincing imitation of that person. That’s not enough for you, and it’s certainly not enough for the people who are waiting to be led by you.
Let’s face it: we only really follow leaders who are willing to reveal themselves to us so we know who they are, and who we’re following. When a leader is courageous enough to show us who he or she is, we’re able to connect to them in a way that makes us willing to be led. If your leadership is essentially an imitation of someone else, how can you expect people to want to follow you? In that situation, they have no idea who they’re following.
One of the problems of depending on exterior models of leadership is how easy it can be to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to one leader or another. What’s likely to happen is that you’ll see yourself as not measuring up to the leader in mind, and not being up to the task. (This always happens when we compare ourselves to others: one person or the other always seems insufficient, some form of disrespect is always expressed, and no accurate or true information of any kind is gained.) By comparing yourself to someone else, anyone else, you run the risk of seeing yourself and your ability to lead as less than you are, and less than it is. Does this sound like a strong starting place?
So, here you are in a challenging circumstance, something that may even be out of the realm of your experience or knowledge. Where do you start? You start where every successful leader has to start: by looking inward at what you’ve got to throw at the task. Here’s the difficult part: many of us have a certain amount of resistance to really being familiar enough with ourselves to know what we bring to the world. If we’re not familiar with ourselves at an essential level, we’re not going to have at our disposal the inner resources we need to bring our strengths and abilities to bear. If this is the case, our leadership will be generic rather than authentic, and the outcome will be at best generic, and at worst unsuccessful.
There’s another, more important aspect to using what is uniquely yours, and it has to do with your long-term development as a leader. By fully engaging the situation with your unique talents and abilities, you’re building those same talents and abilities. In fact, the only way to build them is to learn to trust them and depend on them. The sad alternative is to follow the generic model of leadership and to let those talents wither from non-use. It may sound like there’s some risk involved, and that’s true.
Becoming the Authentic Leader
Several things are at risk: you’re risking setting yourself apart from the mediocrity of the generic. On the other side of things, by choosing not to take the generic road, and by allowing your leadership to rise from within, you’re risking going beyond what you or anyone else thought you were capable of.
A number of the people I work with have perfectionistic tendencies. People with these tendencies often have difficulty giving themselves credit. As they go through their lives and look back at what they’ve done, it can be easier for them to feel a real sense of accomplishment if they’ve used their unique gifts to lead others. If they’ve followed a generic model of leadership, it’s likely the sense of fulfillment or accomplishment they experience will be less than what they’ve actually earned.
So the question to ask in a situation where your leadership is called upon is, “What do I have to bring to this situation?” This can be tricky. Your first tendency may be to look for easy, “one size fits all” solutions, and in certain situations, they’re fine, and they’ll work. Avoid the temptation of falling into the one size fits all leadership model. To be completely accurate, this model is better described as, “one size fits one,” and unless you happen to be the one, in other words, unless this is leadership that has come from within you, it won’t fit.
The more challenging the circumstances, the more the situation demands that you bring your personal strength, gifts, and wisdom to bear. If you’re not able to answer the question, “What do I have to bring to this situation,” if you’re just not sure and don’t know where to begin, don’t worry. It’s a wonderful opportunity to do some inner work and start to figure out who you really are, and what you really have to offer as a leader. If the answer doesn’t come to you instantly, that’s perfectly all right; it may not. Believe it or not, the best time to ask this question is when we’re deeply challenged. At that point, the resistance many of us have to looking inward is weakened. We’re much less likely to engage in inner exploration when the stakes are low, or when things are going smoothly. The only place authentic leadership can come from is within you.