Monday, February 27, 2012

With Great Power...

I think it is nearly impossible to define anything. I think that Webster is just a facilitator of communication and we really all have our own definitions of everything based on what we have learned and experienced in our lives. Now we may all point to a dog and recognize it as "dog" but some have a connotation of fear that comes with it, while others may think loyalty, annoyance, burden, or playmate. But for conversation's sake, we don't say "So I saw a guy talking his pet-that-troubles-me-because-I-was-once-bitten-as-a-child-by-one on a walk," we just say "dog."

Now I could go on and on for hours, days even, about language and what it means for individuals, but I won't. Instead, I want to focus on a single word: leadership. The picture above will evoke different feelings from each person who looks at it concerning leadership and we may all try to define it based off one man's use of it. Was he a good leader? Or was he just effective? What makes a leader "a leader?" and so forth. As part of my job, my group discussed these kinds of things and part of the discussion was created from the reading of an excerpt about leadership. It said something to the effect of "the best leader is the one that people hardly know." It then continued to rank types of leaders, the last one being a leader who is despised by his/her followers. So according to that excerpt, I guess Hitler wasn't the best. It continued to say the very best leader is one who has followers, who once they have accomplished their goal, say"Amazing! We did it all by ourselves."

Just like with the dictionary, I don't think this excerpt it law, but it elicited interesting conversation amongst my peers and I want to reflect on it, give my own definition of it, how to become a great leader, or if that is even possible. 

What makes a great leader in my eyes. I think the excerpt was on to something by saying it doesn't require praise for their accomplishments. Let me explain why this resonates with me. I think the foremost key in becoming a good leader is to be passionate about something. I think to become an optimal leader, you must be as invested in attaining your goal as you can possibly be. Only then can your efforts be directed uninhibited towards that goal; something that will resonate with your followers. A true passion will burn like a fire inside you, and while you may be able to contain the flames, you will not be able to stifle the light being emitted. That light will shine on anyone with a similar passion and foster their own flame, which will lead them to create a similar goal in a personal way. Not to use the same example,but Hitler's goal was shared by many, not always through a contagious passion, but often through fear. The excerpt I mentioned before also characterized bad leaders by their use of fear, so I suppose I again agree with it. 

This overlaps a little with my story about Mark Walker, who said you can get paid anything if you do what you love (passion). I think anyone can lead someone else if it is something they love. 

But here's a unique aspect to this topic that makes the whole thing tricky. I'm going to operate on the assumption that the first statement in the excerpt I used is true; that the best leaders are the ones people hardly know and that make people feel like what they accomplished, they did themselves. If that is true, then how do we recognize the best leaders. If I were to ask you, you would probably start listing people that others do: politicians, activists, community organizers, maybe religious leaders. Now while I cannot debate the fact that some of these people are good leaders, it brings up the question "who is better than these?" because obviously people know these ones. It is unlikely that anyone would say that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a good leader, but operating under the excerpt, he's not the best. And because humans have this insatiable need to know everything, they'll likely search for a person to fill the role. For most people, that's the quandary with this belief. If we cannot find an answer for who is a better leader than MLK, then there must not be one. 

But get this; if you believe that is the case, then you are forgetting what it takes for the statement from the excerpt to hold true: the best are hardly known. So I guess for the statement to hold true, we as humans must embrace the fact that we may not ever know who the best leaders are. I personally don't think this should be too difficult, considering that blind faith is often the basis for piousness. I don't mean to offend religious people(I truly support their beliefs), but often when I ask why they believe, they say "I just do." And that's enough for them. And that's enough for me too. So it should be in this case. But if it's not, let me give you an example from my life.

I like to think I've turned out to be a pretty good guy. Tell that to my grandma, and she'll laugh at how much of an understatement she considers that. Tell that to some acquaintances with whom I have made bad impressions and they will laugh at how wrong that is. Regardless, I want to be able to discount those bad impressions as just that; impressions. In fact, I'll go as far in saying I'm pretty confident in saying that. This could go many different directions, mainly the nature vs. nurture argument, and that's where I will take it. Assuming I am a good guy, why is that so. What accounts for this over some you may consider bad? Well, when I encountered my first-quarter-life crisis at about 20-21, I sought the answer. For a long time I have been a firm believer in the nurture side of the argument; there's no such thing as a bad kid, that kind of thing. If that's true, then the environment I was raised in will account for why I am the way I am. 

(Disclaimer for my mom: Mom, I have a lot of you in me, everyone knows it, so don't take offense to this next part, but I do believe it is true. I love all four of my parents equally, but fact of the matter is, some of them were around more than others. While this means they have affected me more, it in no way means I love a particular one more than the other)
So where was I raised? At my dad's house, but not under his supervision. In my developmental years(3-14 or so) I spent the most face time with my stepmom Terry(or Terriberri as I lovingly call her). She was around for most of the time while I only saw my mom on weekends and my dad later at night. If I choose to believe that environment is the biggest factor in determining who a child becomes, then logically, Terry is the biggest factor in my life. So amidst this crisis, I arrive at this conclusion, and nearly laugh. 

The relationship between Terry and I had been anything but stable for most of my life. I rebelled against at every chance I got, refusing to accept her as a mother and in turn refusing to follow her orders. I hated the way she ran things and "turned my dad against me," I hated how she wanted to be my mom when my biological one was still very much in my life. I hated how I had to do my own laundry and pack my own lunch and check in at home every couple hours if I went out. I even said I hated her, and I think at times I meant it. That's fine though, I've grown since then. And for several years now, probably when I was 16-17, I grew to accept how she ran things(took long enough, right) and we started to get along much better. We still have our arguments, don't get me wrong, but we are more than functional together. 

But when I arrived at that conclusion, it hit me, I think Terry is the biggest factor. That's why I'm so independent, but even more than that- I'm self sufficient. I don't always just do things on my own because I don't like help, I do them because I know I am capable and want to learn. She taught me that. Also, I think this patience comes that I mention in my blog description is another factor I got from her. She put up with some ridiculous things from me(hell, I spat in her shoe when I was about 5). Most girlfriends draw the line there. But Terry didn't. I also have this thing where if you get in my circle, I will love you unconditionally and do anything for you. I believe there are several people in my life that are this way, but I know Terry is, and again, because of the face time, I think I get a major part of that from her.

But how does this tie into my ramblings about leadership? I'll tell you. When I discovered this, I thought how nice it would be for her to hear what she meant to me; that she was the biggest factor in the life of a person many people are proud of(it's not bragging if those compliments come from family), so I resolved to tell her. I remember saying it too: "Terry, I just thought you should know, that you are probably the biggest influence in my life and what I am doing is possible because of the lessons you taught me." Awww.....

You know her reaction? "That's sweet, Jeremy, and I appreciate it, but that's not true. There are lots of other people who have done more."

So, after all of these years of outright hatred and lack of recognition, when I rustle up the most heartfelt, Hallmark-inspired line I could think of, she defers the recognition to others. You're effing kidding me, right? That's a good leader.

So, to return to my claim, that the best leaders are the ones that are hardly known, there is an example. She didn't seek recognition, or even want it. And the second part of it is true too, despite all that I told you. While I think she did influence me, it was me who has accomplished all that I have done. I don't think Terry did everything for me, so it is me saying "Amazing! I did it, all by myself." But I do acknowledge her influence.

What can you take from this one, this long, scatterbrained rant that may lack focus? If you want to be a leader, stop trying to be one. Find your passion and pursue. Hone your skills and don't hide them. Let them be known and let it inspire those with similar goals. You never know, one day your quiet determination to accomplishment a goal or fulfill a passion may result in others doing the same. You wanna know the best part? When several people around you start accomplishing that similar goal and think they did it. That's when you will know you're a good leader.

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