Leaders Step Forward Often

A significant part of my job is to engage others in projects that matter to the practice of business and to the University. This may entail asking for one’s time, one’s talent, one’s connections, and/or one’s money. Often what I’m really asking for is one’s leadership: asking someone to step forward and set an example, become an advocate, create some momentum, or frame a vision that others can rally around. The basic question is, “Would you consider the possibility of leading…?”

It is an enduring wonder to me that most of the time, the response is ‘no’—there are many excuses; and most of them tend to be situation-specific: health, family circumstances, or other commitments at work. Some will admit that they don’t value the cause in which they are being enlisted. A few will say that they just don’t have the energy or relish possible conflict.

Saying ‘yes’ is rarer. This capacity to say ‘yes’ is one of the most important distinctions between the attributes of leaders and followers. As I have listened to successful leaders as they recount their own development, I’ve discerned some recurring themes:

· An impulse to serve prompted by a sense of purpose. For some, the service occurs through a wonderful opportunity; for others, a crisis motivates leadership. In both kinds of cases, the circumstances were energizing to the leader and perhaps paralyzing to people in the group. The one who stepped forward had a special vision for possibilities that others did not see. Good service as a leader starts with a vision. As a Proverb says, “without a vision, the people wander.”

· Encouragement by others. Peers may see qualities that the individual does not. The network knows. The “many are smarter than the few,” as James Surowiecki argued in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Ask people to size you up as a prospective leader—what matters is to tap diverse and independent opinions.

· Growth into the idea of leading; a readiness to spread one’s wings after a time of preparation; a desire to break out of a habit of following. For some people, this tipping point is motivated by a sense of mastery and fulfillment with what one has been doing, followed by an eagerness to get on to the next Act in the play. When Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister in 1940, at the nadir of Britain’s fortunes, he wrote, “As I went to bed at about 3 A.M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

· Ambition: appetite for personal acknowledgement and power. History offers many examples of this (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, etc.) You have to want to lead; but among the most successful enterprise leaders I’ve encountered, this motive is notable by its understatement. I think that ambition explains a rather small part of stepping forward. In his book, Good to Great, Batten Fellow, Jim Collins, suggests that truly high-performance leaders display notable attributes of humility. Such leaders, “build a company that can tick along without them, rather than feeding their egos by becoming indispensable…are ambitious for the company and what it stands for; they have a sense of purpose beyond their own success” (p. 198).

Of most interest to me is that those few who say ‘yes,’ have tended to do so repeatedly. The top performing professionals I’ve known–CEOs, government officials, top university administrators, technologists–got to where they are not by mulishly resisting new responsibilities, but by saying ‘yes’ to an invitation to lead when everyone else said ‘no.’ Usually, saying ‘yes’ began at an early age: leading a class in reading aloud; accepting a role in a play; organizing an athletic team or a band; corralling some friends to raise money for a charity. These plant the seed of leadership and build confidence. Then maybe there was the election to office of a club during school years. In the military and business, one’s willingness to accept assignments helps to broaden one’s scope of awareness and familiarity with the varieties of challenges with which leaders must deal. By then, saying ‘yes’ has become a habit.

The big idea is that people step forward as leaders because of a learned habit. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” The habit in the case of excellent leaders is the willingness to say ‘yes’ when the call for leadership occurs.

Seeing leadership as a learned habit has important implications for our efforts to develop future generations of leaders. First, it is vitally important to give children opportunities and encouragement to lead at an early age. This may not be easy, since in some cultures the norm is that children are to remain silent and must learn to follow. This risks breeding a generation of silent followers. In other settings, considerations such as gender, race, and caste determine which children get tapped. But if leadership is a habit learned through repeated exercise, then the strength of society depends on conscious development of leadership traits starting early across a broad segment of children.

Second, we should promote the ethic of service through leadership. Serving is always about others, a crucial value of great leaders. Mahatma Gandhi stands in modern memory as an exemplar of servant leadership.

Third, we should simply ask candidates for leadership to lead. Some members of your community, club, or business will show up on your doorstep to request a new assignment. These are the go-getters, perhaps five or ten percent of the group. What matters are the others: you must ask them.

Finally, if you are asked, look for every reason to step forward. Don’t be satisfied with the usual reasons to decline. Ask yourself, “why not?” University of Connecticut President Michael Hogan told young people, “Say yes. In fact, say yes as often as you can. Saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to new experiences, and new experiences will lead to knowledge and wisdom. Yes is for young people, and an attitude of yes is how you will be able to go forward in these uncertain times.”

Repeatedly saying ‘yes’ to leadership opportunities turns challenges into an option on the future: a chance to take a look around; a chance to learn by doing something new; a chance to launch your career. As we know, options are more valuable in times of heightened uncertainty, times like the present. And saying ‘yes’ today helps to build a habit of stepping forward.

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3 Responses to Leaders Step Forward Often

  1. Peter Vanderloo says:

    Dean Bruner, this is a powerfully insightful blog entry that deserves to be required reading for attendees at any business school, and indeed members of any institution that intends to breed leaders. Bravo, sir!

  2. Bob – looking back over 40 years of being asked to say “yes”, which far more often I did rather than did not, it’s partly because I was raised to believe that I had an obligation to support the society in which I found myself, and which presented not only me with opportunities for a better life, but also for its all members. To be sure, there is always a price to pay ( loss of family time,as one key example ),but the simple sense of accomplishment is still strongly positive and reinforcing. Better to give than to receive, and far more rewarding in retrospect.

  3. Alex Fuller says:

    This is a great motivational piece. It makes me want to see what I can volunteer for at work today. The good thing about habits is that they can be developed – so even if we haven’t said “yes” often in the past, we can start today.

    Thank you for sharing this inspiration.

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