Leaders Are All Around Us

Some of our blog posts stir up more reactions than others. In this post, first posted on the Human Capital Institute’s website, Giant Leap founder Bill Treasurer argues that leadership isn’t about fame, nor is it reserved for a select few. Leadership, Bill argues, is local.

The original and unedited version of the blog was more forceful than what ended up on the HCI website. HCI published the post under the title, “He’s Great, but Enough About Steve Jobs Already.” 

Bill’s original title was “Leader Tip: Shut Up About Steve Jobs Already”. What follows is the original unedited article along with the enthusiastic reaction the post garnered from internationally recognized leadership expert, Jim Kouzes, co-author of The Leadership Challenge..

Leader Tip: Shut Up About Steve Jobs Already

It happened again yesterday. A friend and I were talking about leadership over lunch when he commented, “What the world needs is more people like Steve Jobs.” I almost gagged up my soup.

It’s a shame that when you ask people to name leaders whom they most admire, they pick people who they have never met and whose lives aren’t even remotely like their own. The answers are often limited to ϋber successful business people, one-of-a-kind innovators, or transformational world-changers.

If the only examples of “true” leaders you can provide are famous people everyone else already knows you about, you either lack imagination or leadership experience. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but you’re not Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, or Sheryl Sandberg. Your also not Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Jesus (who often is picked as an example of servant leadership).

Leadership is an aspirational concept. Aspiring to live into the ideals and example set by others can help strengthen one’s leadership abilities. Having leaders to look up to is a good thing. But fame does not equate with leadership. Fame is fleeting. The famous leader you look up to today may be the leader you look down on when their fame goes away. Al Dunlap, Ivan Boesky, and Jeffrey Skilling were all admired business gods before they were sent to jail for all-to-human failings.

There are two problems with focusing our attention on famous leaders. First, the exceptional circumstances of the famous leader are so unique to that person that it’s unlikely that the lessons can be replicated. Second, if your only references for admirable leaders are those on the world-stage, you’ll miss the leaders in your own families, neighborhoods, and local community. Examples of good leaders are everywhere. You just have to stop looking on the world stage to find them.

When you make your leadership radar more sensitive to local leadership, you can’t help but notice all the leaders around you. Here are a few examples from my hometown, but they just as easily have come from yours.

  • A 38-year old man starts up a nonprofit that matches his love of rock music with his desire to serve the poor. His aim is to interrupt poverty by organizing food drives with big-name entertainers who come to town. He had done something similar during his twenties when he quit his law job and traveled around the country conducting food drives at Widespread Panic concerts.
  • A teacher of special needs students refuses to administer standard state education tests that are designed for “normal” kids. He knows that doing so serves no purpose, and will frustrate or demoralize the kids. The kids’ parents, and much of the community, back him up. He gets fired anyway…but leaves with his integrity intact.
  • The owner of a successful computer repair business that employs 75 people started the business after attending the local community college. Her hardscrabble upbringing – including a drug-addicted mom, and not learning how to read or write until she was 14 – rivals more “famous” leaders. Her business is known for giving generously to local charities.

If you aim to be a better and more influential leader, start looking for similar examples in your own community. For one, you might actually be able to spend time with the local leader. They are much more accessible than world-famous leaders. So do yourself a favor, identify the leaders who are making a difference in your community. Seek them out. Learn from their examples. Be more like them. And shut up about Steve Jobs already

Comment from Jim Kouzes:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this perspective. Leadership isn’t a private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It’s a set of skills and abilities, that, as you point out so well, are learnable and doable by far more people than common leadership mythology presumes. And, to your point about role models, in our research Barry Posner and I have found that the #1 leader role model for 46% of people over 30 is a family member. In second place with 23% is a business leader (most commonly an immediate manager), and for 14% it’s a teacher of coach. For those under 30, the first spot also goes to family members (40%) second are teachers and coaches (26%) and third are community leaders (11%). For young people business leaders only show up for 7% of respondents. No matter how you slice this data, young and old alike find that their most influential leader role models are not famous people from the world of business, politics, sports, or entertainment. They are people in their homes, schools, organizations they work in, or in their communities. We think these findings are inspiring. They show us that leadership is everyone’s business.”

Share with us… Who do you admire as a leader? Someone famous or someone you’ve actually worked with?

Photo credit: Zhrefeh

Bill Treasurer

About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is a bestselling author, leadership consultant, and creator of Q Cards. He is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company, and the author of the international bestseller, Courage Goes to Work. His workshops have been taught to thousands of executives in eleven countries on five continents. For more than two decades, Bill has designed and delivered programs for emerging and experienced leaders from such organizations as NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lenovo, eBay, UBS Bank, Spanx, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to founding Giant Leap Consulting, Bill served as an executive in Accenture’s change management and human performance practice, eventually becoming the $35 billion company’s first full-time internal executive coach.

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