Leadership is Willingness to Step Up and Stand Out

One cannot be a leader without being out there and alone; the extent of the aloneness depends on the extent of the leadership. The more creative the leadership act, the more completely alone one is.

It is not something many will readily admit to – because it is not considered “manly” to do so – but the reality is that most would rather be followers than leaders. Many are more comfortable being part of an organization than being responsible for it. More are content to follow direction than to determine it. Fundamental to leadership is a willingness to step up and stand out; to be vulnerable and exposed to criticism and complaint and many are uncomfortable with that susceptibility. But, that is okay; there is nothing wrong with that. The work to accomplish great things is done by those who follow rather than lead. Leaders and followers need each other in order for both to be successful. Leaders can be successful only when they give others a path to follow. Followers have no path to success if there is not a leader willing to accept the responsibility to show the way.

If the truth be told, many of those who work hard to attain leadership positions – because they thought it was what they were supposed to do – actually are uncomfortable in the role of leadership and their actions often confirm that. Leadership is a process to build on, not rest on. All too often, those in leadership positions who are unable to understand or accept the responsibilities of leading fall into a defensive attitude of entitlement. Seeing the leadership position as an end, rather than a beginning, they act as though power, respect and compliance are their due. These types of leaders often fail because they fail to understand that the responsibilities of leadership are to the followers, not themselves. In order for the followers to willingly follow, the leader must postulate a clear, specific path, convince the followers that he cares about them, will consistently help them achieve personal and organizational goals and that he can be trusted in all matters.

Some Politicians are Born Followers Pretending to Lead

Believe it or not, the reason most leaders fail is because they are naturally followers, not leaders. They are overcome by the ingrained tendency to be accepted and be part of a group. They are unwilling to step up and stand out. This circumstance is clearly evident in the dearth of real leadership in the political arena. How many times have you heard an elected politician say, “I was sent here by the people to do what they told me they wanted”?

That is not leading. That is following.

Few politicians are willing (or able) to lay out a course of action and then convince the people to follow him because the action will help them live a better life and that he can be trusted to protect and preserve their best interests. Because of this, we have become a government – not of leaders – but of opinion polls.

Rarely do we see an elected official who is willing speak out on an issue until he has read, analyzed and digested the latest opinion poll. That is following, not leading. True leaders will drive opinion, not be driven by it. Have you seen or heard any of the prospective presidential candidates step up and stand out during the recent fiasco over the potential shutdown of the government over cost cuts and proposed spending? Sure, they all offered platitudinous statements about cutting the debt and reducing the budget, but the reality is they instituted a “duck and cover” strategy. These are the actions of followers, not leaders.

We were witness this week, however, to a rare exception of real leadership from an elected official. Unlike President Obama, House Speaker Boehner and Senate leaders Reid and McConnell who – trying to position themselves for the opinion polls – became bogged down in the minutia of short-term fixes to long-term problems, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) was willing to step up and stand out.

When everyone from the president on down was neck-deep in bemoaning the financial crisis facing the country, only Representative Ryan has been willing to offer a specific vision and plan for resolution of the problems. If for this reason only, he should be a model for real leadership.

Of course, by stepping up and standing out, Ryan has exposed himself to attacks (most driven by current opinion polls) from all sides of the political spectrum. Due to the fractious nature of our politics today (caused mainly due to a lack of real leadership) it is highly unlikely that Ryan’s proposed solution for budget and deficit problems will be adopted as presented, but that is not the point here. Actually, Ryan’s actions have triggered a rarely seen phenomenon in political life. Even those who are vociferously critical of Ryan’s proposals or fear that they will damage Republicans in the next election, offer sincere respect for his willingness to step up and stand out. And, that is what leadership is all about.

Lacking respect from followers a leader has no chance for success. Earning the respect of followers does not assure success, but it does put the leader in position to express his vision and the opportunity to convince others to follow. Indeed, most political observers have suggested that Ryan’s actions may have defined and set the stage for serious debate during the 2012 elections. That is what a real political leader does – he or she steps up and stands out by offering a specific vision in order to set the debate and lead the search for solutions.

And the Moral of the Story …

It is okay not to be a leader. Many achieve their greatest satisfaction and accomplishment by following the lead of others to accomplish great things. But if you do seek a leadership role, you must recognize and accept that it comes with a responsibility to step up and stand out. Leadership means accepting the slings and arrows of criticism and complaint so that the followers are free to achieve the vision the leader has created. In order to achieve success as a leader, one has to understand that it is not about one’s self, but about caring for, supporting and earning the respect of your followers.

Unfortunately too many individuals – especially political ones – seek leadership positions for the power and perks of office. In doing so, they become more follower than leader. When a leader lacks the willingness to step up and stand out the only future is failure – not only for themselves but for their followers as well.

3 responses to “Leadership is Willingness to Step Up and Stand Out

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