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The Accidental Leader

Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve. Tom Landry

Miguel Guhlin over Around the Corner wants to start a new meme: “What are 7 qualities we don't know about you that help you be a leader?”  and tagged me as one of seven district level administrators. I’ve mulled this one over for a few days.

I have some issues with the term “leader.” It’s been bandied about way too much and has lost much of its meaning. Being a leader assumes one has followers, and heaven help anyone who follows me since I am usually quite lost. Our current crop of public, political leaders, I am sorry to say, don’t exhibit many qualities with which I wish to be associated.

I don’t know what I can really add that won’t sound cliché, so I will come at this a little differently. These are some of the things accidental leaders, people who don’t set out to direct anyone, do that still makes them worthy of being followed. I can’t claim to have a one of these attributes, but they are qualities of people I have liked as a boss or coworker and do my best to emulate.

1. When asked if something could be done, I like people who say, “Anything's possible."
After discussion it might not be practical or advisable, but an idea to my kind of leader always starts out as possible. I admire people who are all about helping other accomplish what they want to accomplish.

2. I respect those folks who show respect for everyone. I like the “leader” who shows as much interest in his foot soldiers and he does his generals. People are people are people and all have value – and not just as employees. This also means being transparent about how decisions are made, giving people credit for having enough brains to understand things like making policies, developing budgets, and having their own visions.

3. I genuinely appreciate anyone who accepts responsibility, takes blame, and shares credit. Too many people shirk the responsibility, shift the blame and take the credit. These people are also known as jackasses. Or too often political partisans.

4. I admire considered risk-takers. They think things through, but don’t need to know all the answers before trying something. They might well live by Theodore Rothke’s line “I learn by going where I have to go.”  Plus they know when to cut their losses if they get unanticipated consequences.

5. My deepest admiration goes to those who can actually turn vision into practice. There seem to be ten educational architects for every educational carpenter in this world. Ask me, the carpenters, who can actually take the blueprint and make it stand against the wind, are not only leaders, but even heroes. I think I liked it best when leaders are actually sitting on the horse at the front of their armies.
6. Those folks I like working with have a sense of humor. Especially about themselves. (If everyone else is laughing at you, you may as well join in.)

7. I like anyone with a highly developed sense of perspective. Knowing what hills are worth dying on and which aren’t. These folks who know it is usually not worth spending hundreds of hours trying to write a mission statement no one reads anyway. These are bosses who recognize that families are more important as jobs. People in authority know that the best rule is to sometimes break a rule. Coworkers who know most mistakes are not fatal and there are few things that you can do that will actually get you kicked off the planet.

One of the ironies of being in a “positional” leadership role – a director, a manager, a supervisor – is that one quickly finds out how little power one actually has. Ordering a thing to be done or a philosophy to be believed is usually about as productive as ordering a two-year-old to eat his peas – you might eventually get the peas in the kid, but the mess will be so bad, you’ll wonder why you started the process. Even “positional” leaders soon find they can lead best by example, with humility, and with common sense.

If this is a meme that interests any of the Blue Skunk readers, please consider yourself nominated to continue it. Passing on these memes make me feel about as guilty as telling a telemarketer the names of other people who might be interested in their product. People do it, I suppose, but does that make it right?


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Reader Comments (3)

Doug, i really enjoyed this post. #5 is the hardest, I've found...not that any are easy. lots of growing to do. Maybe, I'll "get it" by the time I get to be as old as others...or, maybe, some people just never get it.


February 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin
The qualities you list are human attributes.They have little to do with a person's IQ or title. Most leadership development courses try to make people smarter about leadership, as if reading books or or discussing leadership will somehow make one a better leader. There is a difference between insights about leadership and its practice.

I believe that leadership development is a personal journey of self-discovery. It is a journey that seeks to develop the best qualities and gifts of the leader, so that their actions are totally aligned with their values, beliefs, goals and vision.
February 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterpete reilly
Great post. I like the simplicity and personal nature of it. Again, Great Post!
February 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commentereric wright

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