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Why We Can’t Choose to be Leaders

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Is it just me, or do we seem to be living in a world full of leaders, and wanna-be leaders. Everywhere I look we seem inundated with people in ‘leadership positions’, offers of ‘leadership development’, and worldly ‘leadership’ advice. With so many leaders in the world, is there anyone left to do the following?

Let me ask you a question…with all of those ‘leaders’, who would you choose to follow? Because without followers, there can be no leader. And there is my very simple definition of a leader…. “Someone we choose to follow.”

The problem with self-styled leaders, and those appointed to positions with leadership in the role title or responsibilities, what they are really, are managers. There is nothing wrong with that, but let’s call it for what it is…managers, Senior Managers, Middle Managers, First-Line Managers, but still managers. ‘Management’ is not a bad word, yet everyone wants to lead rather than manage. Management is essential, and a good manager is worth their weight in gold to any organisation and those they manage. Why are people so keen to be known as a leader rather than a manager?

To make the point, pick a leader, and it can be anyone you consider as a leader. It may be a senior politician, it may be from sport, it may be within your organisation, or a social media influencer of some kind. Now consider whether they are regarded by everyone as being ‘their’ leader. Not ‘A’ leader, but ‘THEIR’ leader. The answer is no. No one is everyone’s leader.

If it were simply a matter of choice, then there are many who would choose to be everyone’s leader. But that isn’t how it works. The power is with us as individuals, to regard them as our leader, whether in politics, sport, work, or in social media, it is our choice to follow, and pronounce them as leader. So someone cannot simply choose to be a leader. Those who refer to themselves as leaders, is there not an element of arrogance there? Do they not presume too much? Are they trying to wrestle my choice away from me? For me, such individuals fall at the Humility Hurdle.

We may decide that someone is a leader for a whole variety of reasons. It could be because of what the ‘leader’ believes in, it could be whether they know what they are talking about, whether they trust you, whether they are credible in your eyes, are they trust worthy? Do they display humility? Do they manage fairly? Are they sincere? (And btw, please stop using the word authentic…Greek vases and Renaissance paintings are authentic – people are sincere! – yes it’s a pet hate!) There are a whole range of values that we look for in a leader, and we will weigh them differently. Some of us may forgive them for short-comings in one area, depending on our personal view. Others will not. In other words, a leader cannot begin to try and be a leader for everyone.

I guess what I am saying is that trying to become a leader can be a bit of a Fools’ Game. It is not within our control, but instead, if we aspire for others to call us a leader, then we should focus more on something we do control, and that is ourselves. That’s right, forget them, focus on you. Doesn’t seem right though does it?

There are two elements which are essential if we are ever to be considered a leader. One is what we do externally, and one is what we do internally, but they continually cross over. We cannot be good at one and poor at the other. We must nurture both elements if we aspire to others calling us a leader.

The first element then is good management, how we manage what we do. I don’t subscribe to the “Management is process, leadership is people” school of thought. They are so interdependent, clear lines cannot be drawn. 

The second part is our own character, created and grown by our own philosophy. It is our own character, our own philosophy, that dictates whether we manage people fairly. Whether we are sincere, which may reveal some of our own vulnerabilities, depends on our internal strengths. Whether we are able to make morally courageous management decisions will depend on our own strength of character, and having a philosophy to help guide us.

In this context, I am referring to philosophy as “A theory our attitude that acts as a guiding principal for behaviour” (thank you to Oxford Dictionaries) We all have a philosophy, whether we have ever given it proper thought is another question entirely. I also believe we have two philosophies, one we live by almost every minute of every day, and the second is a philosophy that we would like to live by every minute of every day. The more we can move from the first to the second, the more likely we are to be considered a leader.

Giving thought to our own philosophies is not something we do too often. It involves looking at our own ethics, our own beliefs and values, and then undertaking deliberate practice to move from our existing philosophy, to the one we desire to have, and having our aspirational philosophy demonstrated through how we live our lives, how we manage ourselves and others. Dare I say, having it demonstrated through how we lead ourselves and others. 

Building our philosophy is something we can absolutely do on our own, but we don’t have to. As well as leadership being a misunderstood word, so too is Stoic. The word stoic (note the lower case ’s’) means something like having a stiff upper lip. But Stoicism is something else entirely. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, and one that is well suited for use in our quest to develop our character, and for others to see us as leaders. It is about moral courage, justice and wisdom. It is about being trustworthy, fair and above all compassionate. All things we look for in our leaders. 

You could do worse than spend the next few minutes Googling (although other search engines are available!) the term Stoic Leadership – or Stoicism and Leadership. This should give you a good idea as to why, as a philosophy to adopt and try and live by, there is probably no better use of your time in becoming known as a leader.

I wish you luck with your leadership journey, and if you feel I can help, please get in touch.

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