Is Everyone a Leader?

Embed from Getty Images
Everyone’s a leader.

I first heard that phrase back in the ’90s when I was working in Silicon Valley for the late, great Sun Microsystems, Inc.   I was part of the company’s Leadership Institute and we were teaching people to lead.  I bought into the phrase, but I don’t think I fully understood it at the time.  I was still in a mode of thinking, “yeah, everyone can be a leader, but it’s still the executives with the power that do most of the leading.”  Twenty years later, I am older, wiser, and far more experienced in the dynamics of human systems.  I’ve been hearing the phrase a lot again recently and I now have a much deeper appreciation for its meaning.

Being at the top, or in the front, or “in charge,” is one dimension of Leadership.  It’s the dimension most people think of when they hear the word Leader, which is one reason they might discount the phrase “everyone’s a leader.”  Not everyone can be in the front, or at the top, or “in charge,” at least not at the same time.  But leading from the front is just one dimension of a multi-dimensional reality of Leadership.

Leading from Within

Leadership is defined by a choice to follow.  Without followers, and without choice, there is no leadership.  The most basic act of leadership is the choice to follow one’s true self.  This means knowing who you are, having a clear understanding of your deepest values, a solid sense of your purpose in this world, and the courage to live and act in a way that honors them both.  People choose to follow leaders NOT because of what they say or do, but  because of who they are.  It doesn’t matter what your business card says…  if you are leading your life in a way that honors who you are, then you are a leader.

Leading With Others

Leading with Others implies that we lead side-by-side.   When we are all part of something together, Leadership can be shown by anyone, or even everyone all at once.  It becomes a dance where everyone is paying close attention to what is needed, choosing to act when necessary, choosing to follow when it serves the common goal, and embracing the creative tension between the two.  This kind of Leadership is built on connection….  connection between people, connection to a common purpose, and connection to the physical and emotional energy in the spaces in between.  Figuring out what’s needed, for what you want to happen, is something anyone can do, not just the guy with the hierarchical power.

Leading from Behind

Supporting another person to achieve what they want to achieve is called Leading from Behind, or more commonly, Coaching.  Great leaders coach others.  Coaching is the act of moving someone from where they are to where they want to go.  In fact, the origin of the word is about the physical coach used to transport important people from where they are to where they want to go.  Leaders serve others by coaching.

Leading from the Front

Finally, there is Leading from the Front.  This is about setting a direction and a vision for the future and leading others in such a way that they choose to follow you there.  Yes, the world needs this kind of leadership, but its use should be rare because its effectiveness is limited.  In truth, this model of Leadership has been failing us.  The idea that the lone leader can fix what ails us and bend the world to his will is flawed.  It tends to be the model favored by many politicians and business executives (certainly not all!), because when you have positional power, you mistakenly turn to it for your leadership power.  Only then, you’re no longer leading, your pushing, and your ability to move people in a meaningful way vanishes.

We need Leadership today more than at any time in our history.  We need multi-dimensional leaders who can lead from anywhere, by being the change they wish to see in the world, by connecting with others, and by coaching others to greatness.

And yes, everyone is a leader.