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Is Everyone a Leader?

A question I get almost everywhere I go: “Is everyone a leader?”

There I stood in front of a crowd of one thousand students and faculty members, at a university in the Midwest. One instructor stood up with a question I get almost everywhere I go: “Is everyone a leader?”

The answer of course is yes and no (how’s that for a politically correct answer?). It all depends on how you define the word “leader.” If you define it in the traditional fashion—that a leader is someone with a position, in charge of a group of people in an organization—then, the answer is no, in my opinion. Not everyone and certainly not every student is gifted to become the president, the chairman, the CEO, or the key leader of a large team of people. Most will never occupy a top spot in a flow chart. Perhaps only 10 percent of the population will.

I also hear loads of excuses as to why people just can’t be a leader. They are varied, but I’ve found one common thread in them. All of them fail to embrace what we at Growing Leaders consider to be an authentic definition for leadership. This leads to the following excuses for why people cannot lead.

Excuse One: I can’t lead. I don’t have a position of authority.

This excuse stems from the traditional definition of leadership. It equates leadership with a position and with authority. If we define leadership in a different manner, it opens up an entirely new perspective for students. What if leadership was more about people pursuing a “calling” in life; a calling with which we will influence others in its fulfillment? What if it had more to do with finding an area of strength—and in using that strength, we’ll naturally influence others in a positive way? We have chosen this thought to define leadership. We believe it is simply using our influence for a worthwhile cause.

We also believe influence and authority are not one in the same. Your supervisor can give you a position—and with it comes authority. That position enables you to force people to do what you want them to do. This is not leadership. It is imposition. It may even be manipulation or intimidation, but it isn’t healthy leadership. We believe your title can give you authority, but it cannot give you influence. Healthy influence is earned by the credibility you bring to a relationship or organization.

Excuse Two: I am just not a natural take-charge person.

Many people believe that people are either natural born leaders or they are not—and we should not try to force anyone to lead if they aren’t a natural “take charge” person. However, I have observed something quite different in my life. I believe there are two kinds of leaders: “Leaders” and “leaders.” These two kinds of leaders can be defined as HABITUAL leaders and SITUATIONAL leaders.

“Habitual leaders” are the natural ones, who tend to be good at leading whatever group they are in. They feel natural taking charge and running point on just about any project. They lead out of habit.

“Situational leaders” are those people who make up the majority of the population. Most of them don’t even feel like leaders—until they find the right situation that fits their passions and their strengths. Once in the area of their strength, they come alive and become the right one to lead in that particular situation. This is why a central goal for mentors ought to be to help emerging leaders find their “situation.” This situation is likely where a person will fulfill their purpose and leverage their best influence.

Excuse Three: But I am an introvert—so I don’t really influence others.

I teach that every student who is willing has the potential to lead and influence others—even if they are introverts. They may never be “Leaders” (possessing a gift for leadership) but they’re already “leaders” (they have influence). For years I’ve reminded people that sociologists tell us the most introverted of people will influence 10,000 others in an average lifetime. In other words, every one of us, even the shy ones, are influencing others. My question is: what breadth of influence could people have who become intentional about it?

Naturally, some folks are going to turn out to be better leaders than others. Some will actually become excellent at organizing large teams of people, or at speaking to large groups of people and casting vision to them. But leadership isn’t limited to these skills. If it’s only for the skilled people, then we’ll never accomplish the good that needs to happen in our lifetime. It would be like saying that no one has to serve who doesn’t have the gift of service; or that you don’t have to pay taxes if you don’t have lot of money. That’s ludicrous. We all have the responsibility to do what we can—based upon our strengths.

Excuse Four: If everyone is a leader—then who is following?

I hear this all the time—but sadly, it displays an antiquated way of reasoning; an outdated definition of leadership. If we define leadership as using my influence for a worthwhile cause, then it helps us see that we are all leading and we are all following. If I am leveraging my strength and using it to positively impact my world and you are doing the same, then we are all leading in some way. It isn’t about position.

When we ask the question: If everyone is leading then who’s following, it is like asking folks at a shopping mall: If everyone is selling, then who is buying? The answer is simple. Everyone is selling and everyone is buying. The people who sell sandwiches are selling to the clothing store employees during lunch time, and vice versa—the clothing store employees are selling to the restaurant employees when they need to buy a new outfit. So it is with us. Everyone leads from their area of strength. We are all leading and influencing in certain areas. There is an economy of influence for everyone to be involved.

Excuse Five: Leadership means power and power corrupts.

Certainly, mankind has perverted leadership. History is full of leaders who tried to dominate others by force, such as Nero, Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. But we cannot let counterfeits of good leadership convince us that leadership should be avoided. In fact, if there is a counterfeit, it generally means there is something genuine that is very valuable. I believe leadership is intended to be about serving others in the area of our giftedness. When we do, we naturally ripple with influence. We don’t even have to try to “lead” others. As we mature, we are to naturally uncover our area of dominion, and influence a sum of people. Power is a byproduct of service. It does not have to be pursued. This is why I choose to define leadership in this way:

Leadership is using my influence for a worthwhile cause.

Excuse Six: Leadership roles and leadership training are just not for everyone.

This is where research has really helped us uncover some data that’s just plain counter-intuitive.

In 2000, the Kellogg Foundation published a report on the status of leadership on university campuses in North America. The report included both state and private schools, and was compiled by Dr. Helen and Alexander Astin, from UCLA. Their conclusions were intriguing. Let me summarize a few of them here:

  1. Every student has the potential to be a leader.
  2. Leadership cannot be separated from values.
  3. Leadership skills must be taught.
  4. In today’s world, every student will need leadership skills.

Interestingly, it seems that I’m not the only one who’s concluded that leadership should not be limited to the people who hold top positions in an organization.

Excuse Seven: But I’m a person of faith. Doesn’t the Bible say we are to be followers?

The majority of people in America claim to believe in God or a higher power. If you are a person of faith, you may have heard this argument. Yes. The scriptures do call Christians to follow. And those who claim to be followers of Christ are to serve others.

I am simply suggesting that regardless of your spiritual position, as you mature, you will become a person of influence. Even Jesus said: “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).” This means a mature follower of Christ will eventually become a leader of people.

The Apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore, knowing the fear of God, we persuade men (II Corinthians 5:11).” In Genesis 1:26, we are told that we’ve been made in the image of God: “And let Us make man in our image.” Have you ever thought about what that means? I am sure it means many things, but a hint to its meaning is provided in the next phrase of that passage: “And let him rule.” Part of what it means to be made in God’s image is that people have the capacity to lead and to rule. You will always be following and you will also be leading.

Excuse Eight: Leadership is only for people who have top positions in an organization.

More and more researchers agree that leadership is a 360 degree proposition. We influence all around us. In fact, most of the people who influence their team, their corporation, their non-profit organization—in fact, their nation—are not the Chief Executives of those organizations. We lead up, we lead around, and we lead down in organizations. Dee Hock, former CEO of Visa International was the first person I heard propose this notion, and I believe he’s right on. Influence happens everywhere—and often from the middle of the pack.

So, let’s embrace it. Let’s learn to lead and influence in a manner appropriate with our giftedness, and not excuse ourselves because we’ll never be Mother Teresa, or Colin Powell, or Bill Gates. Leadership is a calling on every one of us, to some degree. It’s about becoming the person we were meant to be. It is less about position and more about disposition. It is not so much about superiority but about service in the area of our strengths. It has less to do with a set of behaviors and more to do with a perspective with which we view life.

When we define it this way, it puts the cookies on the bottom shelf. Every one of us can do it. Everyone is a leader.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Leave a comment below.

1. How do you define leadership? Do you believe every student has some influence to leverage?

2. How do you foster an environment that encourages students to think and act like leaders?