I have the wonderful opportunity to work with leaders of all stripes and shapes. It is a joy to work with established leaders late in their career who are thinking about the legacy they are leaving within their organizations. It is also a great joy to work with people that are just finding out they are already a leader and learning about the power they have to make things happen. Many have just entered their first official leadership position where they are responsible on the organizational chart for a team. It is exciting when they make the connection and realize that leadership is not their title, but the way that they act and behave in working with others to accomplish great things.
One of the challenges that many of these young leaders seem to face is finding their voice and power. As a new leader, many are reluctant to grasp the reins of the opportunity and still wait for permission. It doesn’t happen only with new leaders; some people in leadership roles for decades fail to fully grow into the role and possibilities that are available to them and those they lead.
I think that many people fail to achieve what they can, partially because they are too cautious and want it all to be safe.
The Definition of Leadership
In their wonderful book The Leadership Challenge©, Kouzes and Posner present a definition of leadership that I have come to truly appreciate –
“The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations”
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner
When I share this definition with leaders in many organizations and ask what they see, the word “struggle” is frequently the first word mentioned. Many see that word and want to make it somehow easier, to soften it. Being a leader requires us to be open and exposed as we work with others to help them move through challenges to make an impact.
It is always interesting to see how people act in leading others. Leaders often have the budget and the tools of power available to help them in their journey, but struggle fully committing themselves to a vision and inspiring others to accept the challenge to create the future. I think this is because we do not educate people, train them and let them practice leadership from an early age. We work to get people to fit in and not stand out, then wonder why we have not developed the bench strength to have leaders ready and waiting.
Don’t Wait Until You’re Ready
We don’t develop our leadership skills by waiting till we are ready. We grow our ability as leaders by leading through deliberate practice and learning. You can’t wait yourself into being ready. We need to act to learn. It is not age or income or any specific characteristic that makes you a leader, it is the desire, drive and passion to accomplish something with others that makes it happen.
I want to share a few brief examples of inspiring young people who have managed to have an impact through leading that goes far beyond the role we might expect of people so young.
Alexandra has just graduated from high school and stepped into a leadership role as an instructor of karate at a local dojo. At 18 years old, Alexandra has a deep empathy and compassion for others that comes out in the way she works with them. She began training in martial arts at two years of age and is now a 3rddegree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do and will be testing for her 4thdegree next year. She has taken her love of the sport and chosen to help others discover the joy of challenging themselves and growing in new ways.
She is the main instructor for 63 children and assists in training all classes and levels at the school, impacting about 300 people directly. Having built deep skills in karate, the exciting part for me is to hear how she impacts people not just in those technical skills, but in deeper life lessons. In her role, she lifts up and helps people develop themselves.
With her students, Alexandra teaches on subjects such as discipline, self-confidence, esteem, focus, vision, motivation. Two topics that Alexandra is very passionate about are bullying and body image. These are such critical issues for many young people and Alexandra started speaking on the topic of bullying when she was only nine years old; helping people understand the issues and building the awareness and tools to address it.
Alexandra is quick to support and encourage others, using social tools to stay connected and be able to reach out to her friends and peers. She is asked to speak to groups of youth or teens on these topics and is happy to share and teach about these critical issues, having spoken to groups as large as 400 people. Her most recent talk was at a day care center on the “ABCs of Safety”.
Alexandra has a heart to help and has found her voice to have a positive impact on many people in her life already.
Tariku is a young man, who turned just 13 years old this year. He came to the United States from Ethiopia at the age of four, adopted by his parents Ben and Amy. His younger brother had died in the village he grew up in at the age of one from the local drinking water. He personally knew of the devastation that a lack of clean water can cause. As a small child he had a clear vision that no one should die as a result of dirty drinking water. Many of us may have had big dreams early in life, Tariku took action to make his dream become a reality.
Tariku took the next big step, creating a plan and taking action to try to move his vision forward. As his fifth birthday neared in his new home, he decided that he wanted to donate his birthday to help create clean water sources for communities that currently lacked them. He shared his story with his classmates, inspiring them to see a vision that they could help bring to fruition. The students brought in spare change and raised funds at his school. With the help of everyone, Tariku raised over $1,000 for water projects to celebrate his 5thbirthday, paying for a well project in a community in the Central African Republic.
Tariku works with an organization called charity: water to magnify the impact he can have and to continue supporting his cause.
Tariku has continued to support this cause over the last eight years and has raised in excess of $35,000 to fund water projects around the world. He was recently recognized by Charity: Water for his fundraising efforts.
A Very Exciting Future
It is when I see the actions of young people such as Alexandra and Tariku that I feel happier and more excited about the future. Tariku and Alexandra are still young and I do not know what their ultimate future may hold, but I already know that they are leaders who will make those around them better.
When I see people grasping the reins of leadership to make a positive impact in the world, it excites me with the possibilities of what they may create. Leadership is not a position, it is an aspiration and a choice. Alexandra and Tariku have made the choice to impact their world in exciting ways.
What is your aspiration around leadership? What is the choice you will make?