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Even If You’re Not a Leader, You’re Always Leading

by Richmond Fourmy, Psy.D.

We lead others more than we think. Even when we think we’re doing nothing.Have you ever found yourself in a meeting, bored to death, listening to someone drone on about an idea or plan or initiative that no one in the room particularly agreed with or supported, yet you were afraid to speak up?

We’ve all been in situations like this, and when we do, we don’t think of ourselves as leaders. But, in truth, we are.

Others notice and react to our behavior. That includes what we do, as well as what we don’t do.

I would contend that even when we are sitting on our hands and holding our tongues, as we might be inclined to do in the meeting described above, believing that we are doing nothing except maybe tamping down our simmering objections and keeping our mouths shut, we’re also leading.

By not speaking up, not sharing our thoughts or challenging other’s ideas or viewpoints when we disagree with them, our inaction can lead others to follow suit.

The fact is, we are always leading. So, my question to you is this: To what are you leading others?

“Do the right thing”

The weight of this question became apparent to me early on as I engaged in my most important leadership role: fatherhood.

As many of us know from our own personal experience, it’s a good parenting practice to repeat to your children messages you want them to internalize. So, I made it a habit to tell my son, James, every morning when I dropped him off at elementary school, “Do the right thing, be a leader, remember to laugh today, and I love you.”

Every morning for three years I had been telling James this. Then one day when he was in second grade, when I delivered my daily message he had a thoughtful and challenging response.

“Dad, you always tell me to be the leader, but I’m not the leader. Trevor is the leader.” And there it was, the perfect time for a coaching moment! (The poor child, he has a psychologist/leadership coach for a father, after all). I pulled the car over, so we could take a minute to talk.

I asked him, “What would happen if you stayed quiet when the teacher told everyone it was quiet time, even if Trevor tried to talk to you and some of the other boys?”

He looked at me, puzzled. “Everyone else would talk to Trevor.”

“Right,” I said. “But would you be leading the other boys to do the right thing if you stayed quiet and didn’t talk?”

James shook his head. “It doesn’t matter what I did, Dad, they would still talk to Trevor.”

I tried one more time, letting him know that just because other boys might not follow him, he shouldn’t quit trying to lead others to do the right thing.

At that point James wisely chose to extract himself from this confusing conversation. “I gotta go to school, Dad,” he said, and quickly hopped out of the car.

The fact is, we are always leading people to follow our actions. If we speak up, it can lead others to speak up. If we talk over people and interrupt them, it often leads others to act just as brutishly (see the panels on news shows these days).

And if we sit quietly, thinking we’re not leading anyone to do anything? Well, we are leading others. We’re leading them to also sit quietly and not speak truth to power, to not challenge a viewpoint with which we don’t agree, or to refrain from disputing an idea we feel is wrong.

Have you ever dished up some juicy gossip? Of course, we all have at one time or another. When we do, we are leading others to do the same.

And we don’t have to be the designated leader to lead. Regardless of title, level, or culture, to some degree we’re all leaders to others. Of course, this is especially true for those in formal leadership roles.

What can you change today?

When you finish reading this blog and return to work, your church, or any other group you’re a part of, try thinking of your actions in terms of how they might be leading other people. Consider your impact; you might be surprised at how much effect your actions really have on others.

Admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to discern the subtle impact you can have. Just like James with his friends, do you support breaking the rules, or do you lead others to do the right thing through your words and actions? You might be surprised when you take stock of what have you historically led people to do.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting with someone droning on and there’s a vacuum of leadership, take a chance and speak up! You’ll be a leader without having the title, and you’ll also likely provide welcome relief to the rest of the bored (irritated, cynical, etc.) participants.

And what about James and how I tried to impart this lesson to him when he was in the second grade? Eventually, he told me he finally understood.

By then, he was in the fifth grade.

Richmond Fourmy, Psy.D., is an executive consultant with DDI, focusing on CEO succession and leader development for national and global companies. Richmond is a clinical psychologist who started out in the psychotherapy world, before moving to the corporate sector 27 years ago. He has consulted to and coached senior leaders across multiple industries, and he considers himself fortunate that his clients have asked him to travel to five continents and countless countries.

When he’s not pursuing his passion for live music, Richmond can often be found standing in a river fly-fishing or wandering the Blue Ridge Mountains searching for the perfect view.

Learn how DDI can help you transform your leaders to transform your business.

Posted: 07 Feb, 2018,
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