“To lead others, you must first lead yourself.” – A theme from John Maxwell, although I don’t think it originated from him.
Last year I sat on two panels for Teach First. The first was a rerun of the popular Inspirational YOU ‘I’m young and I’m winning’ format. The second was a London Leadership panel for their London ‘Leadership Development’ stream. For those not in the know, Teach First is a UK social enterprise who take high performing graduates and give them two years of teaching experience in challenging schools before unleashing them to sell their soul/work elsewhere.
While I understood my invite to the first panel (technically I’m still young), for a split second I thought my invite to the second was a mistake. I’ve never really considered myself a leader outright. On reflection and in preparation for the panel, I came to terms with my new status and realised that ‘leadership’ has many forms – it’s not only balding middle-aged people with ‘CEO’ printed on their business cards that are leaders. Conversely, I can name a couple of CEOs who don’t ‘lead’. And in paraphrasing my fellow Teach First panelist Andy Woodfield, a partner at PwC, “there’s no such thing as a ‘Leader’ – you just need to be yourself”.
Back to basics: a look at definitions
One of the other panellists highlighted the definition of the word ‘Leader’. These days, we tend to use Wikipedia as a golden source – which in this case is unfortunate, as Leader directs to Leadership. If I look at the ‘old-school’ Oxford English Dictionary entry for leader:
1. One who conducts, precedes as a guide, leads a person by the hand or an animal by a cord, etc.
3. One who guides others in action or opinion; one who takes the lead in any business, enterprise, or movement; one who is ‘followed’ by disciples or adherents; the chief of a sect or party.
The third definition mirrors Wikipedia’s definition of leadership:
a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task
This actually makes leadership seem a bit more attainable at any age. To lead you need to have somewhere you’re going that is clear, and have followers. As long as you can convince someone other than yourself to do something, you’re a leader. This is great news for ‘normal’ people, and the young, who don’t have ‘CEO’ on their business card. This is the first rung on the ladder to becoming a great leader.
In today’s world like everything else, Leadership has evolved.
Last June I head Malcolm Gladwell speak about Generational Paradigms and the difference between the way Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the way the recent Occupy Movement was led. There was no central person ‘running things’ in the Occupy Movement, so when people were removed, the whole thing didn’t fall in on itself. Leadership has become more of a conversation than one way communication. Leadership is now about collaboration.
Twitter, Facebook & WordPress, have added to the ways we can lead. I tweet pretty much everyday and have several hundred followers (!) who have voluntarily decided to ‘follow’ me. They might retweet things I post up to their followers, or direct tweets to me directly knowing that I’ve already expressed an interest in that topic. My December 2012 blog post on my new years objective of Stemettes sparked a number of new followers and some great supportive dialogue around the project – by setting out my vision and making it clear where I want to go (and why) I’ve been able to solicit support (and followers) from places I didn’t even think possible.
To me, this means being genuine – to lead others you must first have lead yourself to do the same thing. It’s easier for me to help my mentees with their Maths or with aspects of their studying, if I’ve done it myself. I’ve audio recorded my revision cards into an MP3 player, then created a mashup playlist of revision and tunes before – so when I suggest they do the same, they do.
I’ve run Twitter accounts and built websites before, so when I advise organisations on how to integrate the two, and the best way to run theirs, it’s easier to be able to show examples, and prove that it is possible – if I can do it, anyone can!
It’s also about being experimental, open and evolutionary. Some things won’t work – failing fast and often means that you can be innovative, stay ahead of the curve and happen on great discoveries.
So…what did I say on that Teach First Leadership panel? Well in keeping with the brief, I created slides (no-one else did) featuring embarrassing photos of me (I’ll spare you looking at them) and I said the following:
- Lead by example. We’ve all heard ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ and each day I read about ‘how Generation Y want to be led‘ (Hint: Open, honest communication). Nowadays, leadership is about authenticity. If you’re not already doing something, why should I follow your advice and do it? Existing leaders need to embrace this, up and coming leaders should look to show they’re doing this.
- Look for opportunities to lead in giving back. You learn by doing. I joined the Arts & Business Young Professionals on Boards programme and have taken up trusteeship at a local charity. I’ve also promoted Young Charity Trustees to my peers and have decided to start Stemettes this year. Each has a charitable aim and each requires leadership skills that can be applied commercially too – if need be.
- Know your weaknesses and work on them. I mentioned that I hate writing, and as such didn’t write a piece longer than 500 words until I started my blog last year. As a leader who needs to communicate, this was a serious missing link in my armoury. I took it head on and have blogged twice a month for over a year now. This year I’m exercising my team building skills.