Great Moments, Not Great Leaders
“Who are the great leaders?”
When I was asked this question over a cup of coffee recently, a 15-month-old popped to mind, and I found myself telling a story about a moment a couple of years ago when my wife Victoria and I were waiting in Los Angeles Airport for a flight to San Francisco.
We had just been told that our flight would be delayed, and as we grumped into our seats at gate 70A to wait, a family of four caught our attention on the other side of the concourse. A woman with a 15-month-old on her hip stood calmly with her husband while their two-year-old son attacked his stroller in a rage.
We watched this painful scene in empathic agony for a while. Then Victoria said, “Look! A couple of your clients.”
I smiled at her joke, but as I kept watching this family in pain, I got an inkling. “Hmmm. A couple of my clients,” I said to myself. I watched a little longer, and then, taking a small risk, I got off my seat, walked across the concourse and went up to them with no idea of what I would say. As I got within smiling distance, I smiled. When I was in speaking distance I said: “I just want you to know how impressed I am with how well you are handling this difficult situation.”
They both smiled, relaxed, and we started talking about kids as the two-year-old continued to rage on.
While we talked, the mother put her daughter onto the terrazzo floor of the concourse. Barely able to walk, this little toddler toddled over to her big, raging brother and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, his rage subsided and peace returned to gate 70A at LAX.
As I told the story, I realized it was a story about a great moment, not a great person. Victoria had exercised leadership by saying: “Look a couple of your clients.” I took leadership by deciding to do something—I didn’t know what. The mother exercised leadership by releasing her daughter, who showed up as the hero of the scene. It’s as if that 15-month-old had been sitting on her mother’s hip saying, “Put me in, coach. I know how to handle this situation.”
And we shouldn’t ignore the father who exercised leadership by standing calmly, doing nothing, just being there. Each of us defined ourselves to the situation in our own way and our leadership brought out the leadership in others. Yes, Carl Jung, there is a cosmic unconscious.
Herd animals that we are, humans have a propensity to look for alpha individuals as exemplars of leadership, people who can be counted on to keep us safe and victorious. But looking for leaders to emulate and follow is a distraction from the real work of life.
“Just be yourself,” they say. But it’s not that easy. We would like to think that we are “good enough and smart enough” and that people will like us, but the truth is that each of us is a dynamic complex of relationships struggling to fabricate a coherent front. Objectively speaking, we don’t cohere, and no leader can save us—they are all messes, too.
Hope lies in the reality that the only reality is the present moment, and in this moment we have the choice to lead or to cower.
“Character” keeps getting a lot of attention mostly as another word for morality. But character as a set of virtues distracts us from the task at hand. The task always at hand is to be our character.
Our life could be “a tale told by an idiot.” We can strut and fret our “hour upon the stage” hoping some leader will come along and lead us out of the mess we are in. Or we can keep working on our lines, engaged in the creative process of being the unique characters we are meant to be. We can act as if we are in communion with a bunch of other characters who are also looking for opportunities to create moments of grace, beauty, truth, justice or love. We can see challenges as opportunities for us to practice our lines. We can keep defining ourselves in ways that bring out the leadership in others.
Happiness and success requires that we stop looking for leadership in others, and start leading our lives.