When we think of great leaders, what names come to mind? Steve Jobs. Richard Branson. Rupert Murdoch. Mark Zuckerberg. The usual suspects, right? Male. White. Rich. And except for Mark, all over 60, or dead. Or nearly dead if you include Rupert.
But I digress.
So what’s wrong with this? Nothing except that if our only concept of what a great leader looks like is defined by our ability to build a company, make money and influence billions of people, it sets the bar for leadership awfully high; so high in fact that most of us can never hope to reach it.
So, does that mean most of us mere mortals are not leaders? Well, judging by the quiz I take at conferences I speak at, (‘who here considers themselves to be a leader?’), then yes, very few of us believe ourselves to be leaders. Considering most are highly successful business owners with dozens of staff members, and multi-million dollar turnovers, it strikes me as odd that so few identify as leaders.
It’s my belief that leadership comes in many sizes and guises and by attributing leadership to a select few, we diminish the accomplishments of others who are demonstrating incredible acts of leadership, albeit on a smaller scale. So let’s debunk a few myths right here.
Do we have to be old to be a leader? No. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for going to school but got back up and went right on back to school and showed those Taliban dudes what leadership really is.
Do you have to be famous to be a leader? No. Rosie Batty did more for domestic violence victims in one year than government authorities did in a decade.
Do you have to be rich to be a leader? No. One of the finest leaders I know made less than $70,000 a year for his entire working life. I can say with some certainty you’ve never heard of him too. How? Because he’s my uncle, Ted Guerin. He passed away over a decade ago. But he lives long in many people’s memories – not because he launched an IPO, or developed an app, or made a million. He did none of that. But he made a difference to a lot of people’s lives by consistently demonstrating what I call ‘little acts of leadership’; actions taken that few see but make a massive difference to those who experience it. At Ted’s funeral, one of his long-standing friends gave a eulogy. As he spoke, his voice broke with emotion. This is what he said:
‘I came from England for a fresh start. We were ten pound Poms. We knew nobody. I was unemployed with four kids. The future looked bleak. I decided to go to church to seek some solace; to get some space so I could think about what I was going to do. When I arrived at the church, there was a large group of people out the front. They were chatting and laughing. They all knew each other. They were having fun and that made me feel even worse.’
‘Then out of the crowd comes this big bear of a man. He comes up to me, holds out his hand to shake mine and says, “Welcome to our parish. I’m Ted Guerin. Let me introduce you to a few people.” And with that handshake a lifelong friendship was formed.’
‘Ted was the first person to welcome me; to make the effort to come over and shake my hand. I’ll never forget it.’ Judging by the sniffling from grown men at the funeral, others won’t either.
Yes, leadership can be about creating incredible products that change people’s lives; about generating billions in revenue. In fact, it can be about a lot of little things. Like taking the time to welcome a stranger who’s looking lost.
It’s about showing someone how to use the photocopier on their first day at a new job.
It’s about showing the new receptionist how you’d like them to answer the phone, rather than getting annoyed that they don’t do it the way you’d like.
It’s about scheduling regular meetings with your staff and never being tempted to cancel it because something ‘more important’ has come up.
Little acts of leadership is about believing that what we do matters to others. It’s about knowing that we may never make a difference to a million people but that we may be able to make things a little better or a little easier for the few around us who we do meet.
And isn’t that really what being a great leader is all about?