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Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way

Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way
Statue

Leadership seems to be on everyone’s minds one these days. Educators talk about “teaching leadership”, religious and charitable organizations host “leadership development” programs , businesses invest heavily in “leadership training”. But what is leadership, exactly? And how do we practice it?

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Leadership is about bringing out and mobilizing the best in the people around you. It’s about helping a group of people work
together towards a shared goal or set of goals. When leadership works, it creates leaders, not followers.

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It follows then that leadership is not a trait of individuals. Leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns describes leadership as a collective process, a characteristic of the relationship between individuals rather than a property of individuals themselves.

Leadership is often confused with power. The common idea is that leaders speak, and followers do. But while leaders
may also hold a certain kind of power, in some senses power is the opposite of leadership: power is what we resort to when leadership fails.

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Another misconception about leadership is that it flows from charisma. While history does offer us the example of
charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy, there is no necessary link between charisma and leadership — there are plenty of charming, likable fellows selling used cars in backwater towns, too. And there are plenty of examples of effective leaders who lack charisma: Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Richard Nixon, to name a few.

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So what is it? And what do we have to learn to practice leadership ourselves? Here’s a short list of ways that leaders exercise leadership, simple practices from which leadership emerges.

What Do Leaders Do?

  • Leaders listen. Listening is not waiting for your turn to speak. Listening is an active engagement with the person you are talking with. Leadership grows out of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues, their fears and triumphs, what motivates them and what turns them off. There’s a trick psychologists recommend, where you try to summarize what your conversation partner just told you and what you understood them to be saying, like this: “So the police officer gave you the ticket anyway, and you feel that was unfair?” This gives your partner a chance to correct you if you’re wrong or confirm that you more or less got what they were saying — plus it helps you to learn and not just respond.
  • Leaders empower those around them. Leadership is not about controlling everything. What separates leaders from the merely powerful is that leaders involve everyone around them and welcome their contributions, however small. Leaders help the people around them feel comfortable putting their ideas forward and acting on them. This is why actively listening is so important — it lets people know that what they say is valuable and important. If leadership is about making those around you into leaders, you have to let go and trust others to move your shared projects forward.
  • Leaders recognize others’ strengths. Empowering others is bound up with recognizing what they are good at and encouraging them to develop those strengths. Surely you’ve run across people who simply cannot take a compliment — they simply have no idea of their own value. Good leaders recognize the value of those around them anyway, and act accordingly.
  • Leaders are trustworthy. There’s a reason people get so upset when prominent figures are exposed as hypocrites: it calls into question everything they came to believe about themselves and their goals. People may not believe you when you compliment them the first time, but as you build a consistent track record of honest and fair dealing, they will come to believe. Likewise, when you always do what you say you will do, when you act in accordance with the values you espouse, you become an inspiration to those around you.
  • Leaders are confident. Good leaders are sure of themselves and their goals. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have been to the mountaintop. I have seen the Promised Land!” This kind of certainty is infectious — it conveys not just our wishes but our passions and makes them appear real and inevitable. It keeps us focused on our goals and not on the difficulty of attaining them.
  • Leaders make decisions. People generally do not like to make decisions. They much prefer routines, known processes with known outcomes, and there’s a great deal of value in reducing complicated situations to a set of routines — much of the GTD methodology, for example, is based on creating effective routines (reducing complex projects to simple tasks, or “cranking widgets” as Dave Allen likes to say). But leadership is, by definition, about change, often disruptive change, and change demands decision-making, often between bad options. Leadership lies, therefore, in the wiliness to step forward and make a decision, and in taking responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
  • Leaders recognize the value in other perspectives. Leaders recognize their own limitations and the power that other people’s knowledge and life experience have to expand and push us past our limits. Leadership means trying to see the world from the perspective of those around you, even those who are working against you.
  • Leaders commit to action. There are a lot of smart, thoughtful people in the world who know exactly what needs to be done to change the world we live in, yet their worlds never change. Leadership means taking the next step and actually doing it. Leaders convert future goals into immediate actions and either do them or inspire others to do them.
  • Leaders demand commitment from others. In any project, there are lots of “hangers-on”, people who are interested in the goals being worked toward but not really invested in the process of attaining them. Leadership lies in helping those people to become invested, generally by asking them to take responsibility for some action or set of actions. People who have made a commitment to doing something concrete are not only much more likely to do it but they come to view the overall project as their own — and to feel responsible for and to their colleagues.
  • Leaders share ownership. As I said, leadership is about making those around us into leaders; ultimately leaders get out of the way. The best person for the job of creating change may not be the best person for the job of maintaining the new order (consider what usually happens when military leaders install themselves as political leaders after overthrowing a corrupt regime). Good leadership lies in creating in others the sense that the goals they are working towards are their own — as are the rewards. By giving up control and sharing ownership of their goals and passions, good leaders help to insure that the changes they envision — whether it is a successful product launch or a radical social transformation — will endure beyond their own active participation.

I hate the idea of “followers”. True leadership is not about amassing followers, it is about building teams, it is about creating social structures that effect change, however small or great, in the world. Followers are for demagogues, people who want the thrill of being adored and of exercising power over others, people too selfish and too weak to share. If we look at the history of social change, these “leaders” have almost always become exactly what they’ve claimed to replace. Real leadership is about real change, not personnel shifting.

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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