For almost all of the past 300 or so of my presentations, I’ve opened with the same question.

“How many of you are completely comfortable with calling yourself a leader?”

The crowds have been young and old, student and professional, representing dozens of different interests and professions.

The one thing they’ve had in common? Hardly anyone raises their hand.

Only 26 times have I had more than 50% of those in a room raise their hand. Of those 26 times, 18 of them were children under the age of 12.

It seems that as we get older, we form a more comprehensive list of the criteria for a “leader”, all while becoming far less likely to hold ourselves up next to that list and determine we deserve the title.

Perceptions of Leadership

Recently, however, I’ve been considering how perceptions of leadership would change if we changed the way we viewed the existence of “leaders”.

It’s a thought process that began when I stumbled across the fact that the word “leader” first appeared in the English language sometime in the 12th century, while the word “leadership” didn’t come along until almost 500 years later.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we swapped the proverbial chicken and egg.

Historically we created “leader” before “leadership”. But would we now be better off teaching that the former only exists in the presence of the latter?

The Leader “Rank”

You see, right now it seems to me that we treat the term “leader” as if it’s a military rank: once someone earns it, it’s theirs until they die or do something to deserve having it stripped from them.

Rise high enough in a bureaucratic structure and you’ve earned the right to be called a leader, even if you end up moving to an entirely different bureaucracy.

Engage in an act deemed “inspirational” and high profile enough, and you’ve earned the right to be called a leader, even if the act is a one-time thing.

Find a way to have enough eyeballs focus on you, regardless of what for, and you’re a “leader” as a result of your influence (for better or for worse).

In fact, there are relatively few things for which we will strip the title of leader once it is “earned”.

Adding Value

The result is that many people are considered “leaders” when they aren’t actively adding value. In fact, many are actively pulling value from their own life or the lives of others while carrying the title of “leader” because they have displayed leadership in the past.

However, what would happen if we no longer used past acts to judge whether or not someone was a “leader”? What if we came to believe that a person is only a leader during the moments they are actively engaged in the process of leadership?

For instance, a baseball player is only a “base-runner” when they are on the bases. In the dugout, in the batter’s box, even when they’re playing in the field, they can be acknowledged as having extraordinary base-running talent. But until they actually actively apply those talents, they are not a base-runner.

In other words, we begin to teach that you no longer say, “Christine is a leader.” Instead, you say, “Christine is often a leader.” Or perhaps ideally, “Christine is usually a leader.”

Striving to Act

Well, first off we’d likely need to define what it meant to “engage in the process of leadership”.

Obviously that discussion has been going on for quite some time (or at least since the word appeared about 100 years ago), and I don’t aim to argue that I have it figured out.

However, I would like to share the rough ideas I’ve been using to explore the idea over the past few weeks.

I define leadership as striving to act, every day, in a way that makes it more likely you will have a positive impact on your own life and on the lives of others.

I say striving to act to recognize that we will not always be successful in our attempts, and in a way that makes it more likely as a recognition that even the best executed plans fail to deliver the desired results.

However, a consistent commitment to acting in ways that make added value the likely outcome will generally move you forward more often than not.

Earn it Again

So if, for the sake of this exploration, leadership was defined as “endeavoring to add value to your own life and the lives of other people”, people would only be leaders in those moments they were endeavoring to do just that.

What if, one by one, people began to refuse to treat “leaders” as anything more than a temporary state: like in old school video games where your character gets extra big, or can’t be killed.

Related:  Leadership Lessons from the Desert

Eventually that temporary state wears off, and you have to do whatever is required to earn it once again.

What if we began to teach our children that you could be a leader many times a day, but there would likely be just as many moments, or more, where you were not?

After all, if we embraced this definition of a leader, no one would be a leader while they slept.

The Goal

We could make clear that was okay: that the goal wasn’t to accumulate money and wealth, or to compete with one another to be “in charge”—after all, those acts would no longer earn the title of “leader”.

The goal would be to be a leader for the highest percentage of time possible each day (i.e. to spend as much of your time as possible adding value to others), but it would be generally accepted that everyone would spend some portion of their day not being a “leader”.

How big a shift would we see if we started to hand out as many rewards to the children who spent a high percentage of time as “leaders” as we do to those who did well on tests?

What if as many grades were given out based on how well children added value to each other as there were handed out for the ability to read, write, and do math?

Is everyone born with the same capacity to add value to others?

I don’t know, but the fact that there are far fewer tangible rewards in the education system for doing so than there are for reading, writing, and doing math well (things for which we know not everyone is born with the same capacity) means we are unlikely to find out.

Acts of Leadership

I wonder if the development of a cultural hesitance to utilize the title of “leader” except when an individual was endeavoring to add value would create more consistent, long-term efforts to add value by a larger number of people?

If the title retained the cultural cache that it currently holds, would such a shift not encourage those who are, in effect, “coasting” on previous acts of leadership (but not presently acting to add value), to “get back at it” if they wished to maintain the same level of respect they currently enjoy?

Obviously, this involves a fundamental shift in how we choose to use the word “leader”, but I would argue that cultural definitions can certainly change, particularly when the desired redefinitions are injected directly into the education system.

North American Values

I attended elementary school in the early 1980’s, around the same time a North American values shift began to move drinking and driving from just “something you really shouldn’t do” to a serious social taboo. It was always illegal to drive drunk, but as my father joked once, “it used to be Canada’s national sport”.

A concerted effort to portray drinking and driving to young people as something “bad people” do fundamentally changed our cultural values.

“Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” was a saying I knew well before I was old enough to legally buy a beer.

Those who drank and got behind the wheel of a car were portrayed to us as reckless potential killers, and as such, my generation grew to see it as culturally unacceptable: drunk driving fatalities fell by one-third between 1983 and 1993, and continued to fall steadily until 2007.

A Change in Behavior

What if we began to teach our young people that it’s unacceptable to call people “leaders” when they don’t deserve it, and that they don’t deserve it when they’re not aiming to try to make things better for as many people as possible?

Would people change their behavior to continue to be called “leaders”, or would people simply cease to care as much about the term?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’ve had quite a good time exploring them these past few weeks.

I thought perhaps these questions were worth sharing here, as I’m interested in hearing the thoughts of others fascinated by how we study, define, and teach leadership.

Is this type of redefinition possible? Is it desirable? What unintended consequences might emerge?

What Do You Consider a Leader?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.