A recent assignment in my PhD program was to write a letter to a young leader.
Here is my letter:
When I was a child I thought that leaders had something inherent to them that made them great people able to achieve tasks that left a permanent mark on the world. I was under the impression that presidents came from a specific group of people similar to royalty, and business leaders just naturally knew the right decisions to make and people wanted to follow them. In my mind, people who filled leadership roles were different from regular people. What I did not anticipate was how wrong I was.
My first job was in fast food at a local mall. The restaurant was a national chain operated through a local franchise that encompassed twenty-four restaurants in our area. Our company policy required us to wear a hat whenever we were working to protect the food from contamination. One Saturday morning while I was working I answered a knock on our back door. Through the security window I could see a man dressed in overalls and a t-shirt with our company logo. I assumed he was from maintenance and let him in. As he came through the door, I saw he was not wearing a hat, and I asked him to leave the store and come back with a hat on his head. Without any argument, the man turned around and retrieved a hat. By the time he came back in the store manager was there to greet him, and I returned to my work station.
The man and my manager spoke for a few minutes and then he left. When the rush relented, my manager asked me to step in her office. She asked me if I knew who the man was I had sent out of the store to put on a hat before he could come in. I told her that I assumed he was a maintenance worker, and she informed me that he was the franchise owner. Immediately, my heart sank not knowing how this man with so much power over my job was going to react to me, in essence, kicking him out of his own store. My manager told me that he was impressed that one of his teenage workers was willing to enforce the rules without regard for the status of the person entering the restaurant. The truth is that I assumed he was a maintenance worker. My intent was to enforce store policy to keep me from getting in trouble and to help him avoid trouble in case he just forgot his hat.
At sixteen years old I learned that leadership is not a position one holds or the power they wield. Leadership is influence. I influenced the owner of a franchise to show regard for the very policies he surely established and approved. He could have told me he was the owner and imposed his authority on me, but instead, he demonstrated humility and leadership simultaneously by accepting the authority that company policy gave me to send him out. He was humble in obeying and a leader in obeying because it was his policy and by extension his authority that gave me authority.
Everyone is a leader because everyone influences someone. You have to decide as you grow in your career whether or not your influence stops with yourself or whether you will influence those around you. Your position may not be one that assumes a leadership role, but that does not mean you are not a leader. You will lead even your leaders when you share your ideas, challenge the status quo, and build consensus among your co-workers. Those around you will recognize your leadership because of what you do more than the position you hold.
Leadership is not about authority. Leaders may have authority, but they serve a much greater role than just being a boss or manager. Leaders fill one of many roles that are necessary in any organization to accomplish their mission. My role as the chief operations officer only means that I have a different perspective on the application of the mission of my organization. The maintenance manager fulfills his role by fixing equipment when it breaks, the truck driver fulfills his role by picking up donations from our generous community, and I fulfill my role guiding the work they do with a mind toward the mission we are trying to accomplish.
Finally, you should know that I was wrong. Leaders are just regular people. There is nothing about a leader that makes them more important than anyone else in the world. We all share the same level of value that makes us deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The leader no more deserves to be called “Sir” or “Ma’am” than anyone else nor should they expect such treatment if they are not also demonstrating that same model of behavior.
You will encounter people in your career and life who will strive for leadership as if it were a prize to won. Leadership, however, is not an accomplishment; it is a role to play. If we are being honest, we will admit that leadership is more about service than authority and more about helping than ordering. Leaders should not be looked up to as someone above others. When someone wants to be where you are, make sure that place is with the men and women you represent as their leader and who represent you as the workforce.