Try this exercise. Take a piece of paper and fold it in thirds. In the far left column, write down the name of every person you consider a great leader. Make sure you consider both historic individuals and those who have personally touched your life. In the middle column, next to each name, write down a few words describing what they did to warrant their inclusion on your list. In the far right column, write down what obstacles they had to overcome to achieve the result which put them on your list.
Now take a look at your list. How many of the individuals who made your list did you recognize as “maintaining the status quo” as their greatest achievement? Conversely, how many made your list by overcoming some obstacle, initiating a change or achieving greatness beyond what conventional wisdom thought was possible? And how many of these individuals accomplished their feats without ruffling any feathers? Chances are, your list is probably made up of doers, those who took action, challenged the status quo, stuck their neck out and shook the tree.
So why don’t more people put themselves in the position to be considered a great leader? The easy answer is that it’s a difficult road to travel, filled with countless obstacles and challenges. It is not a safe journey. But that is precisely the journey that a great leader takes. It is doubtful that the leaders on your list were known for complacency, short-sightedness, routine action, conformity, conservativeness or fear. Rather, it is a pretty safe bet that they are known for having a vision, being innovative, taking a stand, bravery, energizing a community or maybe even an entire nation, pushing forward in the face of all odds and succeeding in conquering the unknown.
That is what great leaders do. They lead. By the very definition of “lead”, one must be moving. If you aren’t moving, you’re just first in line. But leaders are guiding others. They are the ones who are first to show the way, to make radical departures from the accepted mentality and to create a new way of life or looking at the world.
Look at your list again. How many of them made the cut just because they had achieved a certain title? Did anyone make the list based upon actions beyond what was expected of them? Chances are, you have identified leaders who rose up from all levels of organizations and all positions in life to assert their influence and lead others to success. Great leaders are not followed because of a title. They are followed because they inspire action. They don’t look at the world in terms of what can’t happen. Rather, they look at the world in terms of what could be.
At one time in our existence, the earth was “known” to be the center of universe; the world only extended as far as the horizon; space travel was impossible; nobody would ever use a personal computer; and segregation would always exist. But fortunately, our history is also filled with courageous individuals who challenged these long held beliefs and fought to change the world. Were their journeys easy? Absolutely not. But their journeys all improved the world.
Not all leaders impact the world as a whole. Great leaders also change the nature of work, of relationships, of education or of any community. They may also be the one to change the “way it’s always been done” by introducing a better way. There is no stereotypical “leader”. Leaders are the ones who see something that needs to change and they enlist others to help them change the situation. They come in all shapes and sizes, all colors, nationalities, genders, races and ages. But they all share a desire to improve their world.
We can all see things in our lives that we would like to impact. But few of us have the courage to take that first step and to have the tenacity to see our vision through to completion. Leadership is not an innate characteristic. It is a learned skill. It doesn’t come from schooling; rather it comes from action and out of necessity.
You can become a great leader. Whether it’s in your community, your workplace or your family, you can lead others to do great things. That is why leaders shake the tree. They are seeking a better way and realize that nobody ever did anything great by taking no action at all. The question is, “do you have it in you to be a great leader?”