The Atlas

A leader by any other name

Last week I found myself profoundly disappointed by how someone chose to behave. This was someone I respected and who had a great deal of influence in my daily life; I had held him in high esteem and felt confident in his integrity. His behavior was not only a shock to my system, but it felt like a betrayal of my judgement and the trust that had been placed in him -- by both myself and others. And, as is not uncommon, severe disappointment is a quick and direct gateway to bitter anger for me.

As I struggled to try to reconcile how my view of who he was with who he decided to show me he was, I quickly found myself stuck in a cognitive hamster wheel:

  • He is a leader. How can he hold other people's trust in such low regard?
  • How does he think that behavior is going to inspire people to work with him in a way that is good for him in the long run?
  • Is this really who he is or is this a function of him reacting to a unique circumstances brought on by the Zombie Apocalypse?
  • How could I have misjudged him so badly?

And on... and on... and on...

At the end of it, though, I kept coming back to the first point: He is a leader.

And then it hit me: He does not THINK of himself as a leader.

With only a very brief exception, since before I was born, my father has owned his own business. But in all of those years and each of those businesses, not ONCE has my father ever claimed the title of CEO. And yet, without dispute, he was the CEO of every single one of them. But he was a business owner and the head of a family. And, no matter how exhausting, frustrating or inexorable those roles ever were, my father's innate sense of ownership of responsibility never wavered. That is being a leader, with or without a shiny title on a business card.

In our modern, title-inflated world full of wannabe social media paragons, many people want to bask in the glamour of talking the talk without having to carry the burden that goes with walking the walk. It's one of my biggest beefs with the world of startup celebrities and the Rock Star status of entrepreneurs and CEOs. That's the Reality TV of the business world. It's trivial. It's dangerous. It's inaccurate. It's bullshit.

All of my disappointment last week was based on the fact that I had thought of him as a leader. And his behavior ran contrary to the most basic rules of good leadership. It was a good reminder to me of several key things:

  • No one can behave in a way contrary to how they see themselves.
  • When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
  • Pressure reveals what is already there; don't try to explain it away.
  • I choose to believe that people are doing the very best they can.

I am someone who believes that we are each leaders. That we each can become better leaders, and that we have it in us to lead well -- whether we are simply leading ourselves, a family, a company, a nation or a movement. But I also recognize that we each have to opt-in to that belief ourselves; no one else can do it for us.

He did not opt-in. I mistook his title for my conviction. My bad. He chooses not to be a leader, and my only sane reaction is to recognize that choice and not expect from him what he has no appetite to deliver.

So who are you expecting something of that is beyond what they are willing or able to give? And how does it make you feel to live with them constantly falling short of your expectations? What would change if you chose to believe that they are simply doing the best they can?

Alora's Signature