A friend suggested that some people don’t want to lead. He insisted some just weren’t cut out for leadership and others might “never” or seldom choose a leadership role.

What makes a leader?

It got me thinking about what makes a leader. Is leadership a position, a set of behaviors or a decision? If a leader is the person in charge or a set of behaviors, I can agree with my friend. But my idea of leadership changes my answer. Let me explain.

Reasons to choose against leadership

Often, we don’t want to be in charge. We may not prefer the activity. Even if you think you want to always be in charge of everything, think of an organization or a service you sincerely dislike. Every endeavor has activities we dislike and some purposes are just not “our” purpose. When that happens, we choose to avoid leadership.

Also, some jobs or activities bring out the best in us, and others simply don’t fit. The road to the Peter Principle is littered with people who dropped out or were kicked out when they rose to their level of incompetence. Positional leaders and people in a management or administrative roles need different skills than the individual contributors they oversee. As a result, many people find they can’t be successful in a particular position of leadership.

Certain behaviors associated with leadership can also be weaknesses. Many people don’t want to be “up front.” You may dislike the uncertainty. Some may not want to direct others. Some people have a problem being the person who stops the buck all the time. Others can’t understand why people might need to be coached, mentored or disciplined. We’re all created differently. If leadership is a set of behaviors, then only those who can perform those behaviors are qualified. Only certain people should apply.

A different perspective

I believe leadership is influence, and a leader’s most valuable asset is his or her character. Character-based leadership is leading from who you are and not your position or your actions.

What if leadership begins with a decision? We’re each shaped by our circumstances and our heritage, but in the end we are what we choose to be. What if a leader is the person who won’t let something go undone? What if a leader is the person who takes responsibility? What if a leader is the person who helps other people succeed? At the moment we’re willing to acknowledge this type of personal leadership, the answer to the question changes for many people.

People take the lead when they see a problem or opportunity and feel they must do something. When you find the thing you simply must do, at that moment you choose to be a leader. You choose your attitude and your actions, and you influence others even if that’s not your plan. You become a leader when you decide you are the answer to a problem. You become alive when you choose to pursue something bigger than yourself for the benefit of others. The very thing(s) that drive you crazy may be the very things that inspire you to choose to lead.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman

Mike Henry Sr. is the chief instigator of the Lead Change Group, a global non-profit community dedicated to instigating a leadership revolution. He’s also one of 21 co-authors of “The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a Leadership Revolution… One Person at a Time.” Connect with Mike on Twitter @mikehenrysr and on LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

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3 Responses to “Are you a leader … yet?”

  1. BruceR says:

    The concept of people rising to their level of incompetence is not Murphy's Law, it's the Peter Principle.

  2. Mike Henry Sr. says:

    Thanks for the comment. I've always loved that quote too. Mike…