Reflection: Everyday leadership
I consider myself lucky; I get the opportunity to engage with many managers and leaders. Every time I do so, I like to ask for their definition of leadership. The responses are staggering in there variety. Some are as succinct as ‘a leader has followers’ to ‘a leader should lead by example by not asking someone to do what they cannot do themselves’. If this is the response from 8-10 people per workshop, imagine the plethora of thoughts from around the world.
I have my own definition of both management and leadership of course, this is generally what I look for in a leader, I am mindful that this is what I use as my own personal measure. We often turn to academics and thought leaders on these subjects for further help and guidance. They are in a position of being able to interview, research or get access to leaders. I consider this a privilege.
I find myself struggling with ‘thought leaders’ however, who and write as fact and yet have never led! Similar to Alan Leighton’s thinking when he wrote his book ‘On Leadership’. Even through privileged access there are huge differences in outcomes and writings, no wonder people become confused with the subject! In this reflection I will look to provide a concept of leadership from a variety of sources in an attempt to unpick themes. There will be people who will disagree, but the point is, it provokes thought and a deeper personal analysis of leadership and its meaning to you.
With so many thoughts and idealism on leadership can we really coin it into a phrase or a set of behaviours and where do we look and what do we look for in day to day transactions? Many trainers and consultants (some have led some have not!) will help by providing images of ‘leaders’. Generally, you will see people like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Mother Theresa, Steve Jobs, Angela Merkel and so on. Great Trainers and Consultants will take this one step further and link their speeches, actions and outcomes providing a view of why so many people follow them. This then leads to in-depth discussions about motives and behaviours.
This provides a solid representation and allows us to unpick certain behaviours due to their media coverage and position or status. The facilitator will then highlight these, match it to a theory and bingo….leadership understood. Well no, not really. We generally receive a dramatised peek into an allowable window that then leads us to a conclusion or sometimes, confusion.
When we are shown images of famous leaders, we need to appreciate the position they hold. How many of us will really become CEO’s, world leaders and people of status playing out leadership on a global stage? We need to take a step back to consider that leadership is everywhere, not just in the media, social or otherwise. It’s the everyday leadership that we are lucky enough to see and experience, a caretaker picking litter up because they respect the area that children learn in, a NHS Porter retrieving a patient from theatre after their shift because they were the one to take them there, a payroll assistance finding and correctly placing the .38p that went astray in a 1.8m pay round because it belonged to somebody.
It could be argued that this is their job, these are practices that they should be doing anyway. I have been fortunate to see these actions play out, when asked ‘why did you do that’ it is the thought and consideration behind the action that shows the true leadership. In the examples provided, not performing these small acts would not have changed the world or be captured for millions of people to see but that’s not the point of everyday leadership.
I am fortunate to be the friend of the Caretaker mentioned above, his name is Phill. Over a drink, Phill told me about attending an interview recently to work at a comprehensive school. I took the opportunity to listen and question his motives. He told me that his role is called ‘Caretaker’, ‘in essence, I take care of the things that the teaching staff are not there to do. I keep the school functioning by applying the skills I have learned, I take care of that side while the teachers provide knowledge and learning to the students’. He went on with his story of the interview he had recently been to. ‘The interview panel took me on a tour of the school showing me the size and various areas that I would be responsible for if I was offered the role. On the tour I noticed litter on the floor, my natural reaction is to pick it up, so I did. I placed it in a nearby bin and noticed that one of the panel had also picked litter up. The tour was 15 minutes long and by the time the tour ended we had all contributed’.
During the time I spent with him he told me, ‘when I do this in a playground full of children, every single time someone else follows suit’. ‘On a basic level’, he tells me, ‘this makes his role easier (with as smirk), on a deeper level, I am helping people respect their surroundings. Not everyone does this, I see students dropping litter all the time, I ask them to pick it up and they ignore me, however, the reaction of the group is interesting. There is a feeling of uncomfortableness, an unease, I hope it stops them from following suit’.
Phill’s story shows a mindset of not only ‘followship’ but on an ethical level, a morality, an authenticity to do the right thing not because someone will judge you on it, just because it’s the right thing to do. What I did find interesting was the contagious effect. It didn’t take much effort, it didn’t take much time, but it did take thought.
This kind of behaviour has been labelled ‘positive conformity’ by Stamford psychologist Jamil Zaki. The work he researches considers generosity stating that participants of the research who believed others were more generous became more generous themselves. The suggestion that good actions are contagious and can be cascaded, as a leadership theme this is an interesting concept. Imagine the impact you could have on workforce culture if you could engage a whole organisation in this kind of positivity? The fact that we can potentially spread good actions by being mindful of them ourselves is indeed intriguing. I am under no illusion that this is a huge mountain to climb, but everything starts with a thought and then an action.
There is one missing link, one vital piece that is missing from Phill’s thought process, he doesn’t see himself as a leader. I asked Phill if he thought himself as such, he laughed. ‘Absolutely not, I don’t lead a business or a school, I am the Caretaker, I am there to make sure it runs well.’ Leadership is seen as something ‘out there’, something distant from people like Phill, he views leadership as something beyond him even though he creates followers, sets examples, is authentic and behaves with morality.
When I have reflected on leadership, I see it as a set of behaviours and values that happen consistently, daily. These behaviours make a difference to other people and add value to the wider community in which we live. It is about positive influence on people. Drew Dudley highlights everyday leadership in his TED talk. He states that if you consider leadership as beyond you, you make an excuse not to expect it from others in everyday life. If you were to embrace leadership in your everyday actions and the fact that your actions can have a huge influence on others, you will be recognised and therefore will have to become an everyday leader. This is consistent with your words and deeds.
I enjoy listening to Drew, I do believe there is an extra element here. While the above will enable you to become a better version of yourself, we also need to recognise in ourselves that our actions are worthy of the term ‘leader’. Acceptance of such a term is difficult for others to accept and even more difficult for others to recognise in people and consider that their actions are worthy and just of such recognition.
This thinking leads me onto considering people like the late Steven Covey. His book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is coming up to 30 years old and yet remains topical within discussion on leadership. Following the everyday leadership theme, Covey presents us with certain habits that marks us out as leaders. One element of this book that will always stay with me is his writing on response-ability.
The ability to choose your own response is the only thing that we are really in control of. The choices we make, how we choose to respond, the consideration of the situation, the way we feel, the impact of our choices is often a split second decision which I believe is why Covey chose to mention this, and it does take practice. Practice long enough and it will become a habit. If the habit is positive and observable, then we have a basis for positive conformity. The observable factor is less important than the positive impact we make, yet I feel that this is still an important one as it creates a culture for others to watch and act.
There is a plethora of material available on everyday leadership, blogs stating that there are 7 or 5 or 10 ways to identify yourself as an everyday leader. One did stand out as getting this completely wrong. It begins, ‘from CEO to receptionist we all have the opportunity to be an everyday leader’ a good start and then drifts off into competencies such as ‘setting a compelling vision’ and ‘ensure the team are following you’ and basically becomes a mandate for mid-level managers with the receptionist and everyday employees’ element completely lost. They missed the point by a mile. Usual leadership competencies pushed out by people who just don’t get it.
There is a discipline to everyday leadership that occurs naturally and very often with humility which is where people struggle with the concept. Through failure, often multiple failures, they learn, they are stoic in their approach because they not only feel it’s right, but it adds value to the community. They make the world a better place through their positive actions and their interactions.
This is about discipline and knowing that the habit they are doing is delivering positivity somewhere to someone. Also, stoic in accepting that what they are doing may be out of the norm. One true leader I worked for many years ago walked round the office every single morning with a smile and wished everyone a good morning often stopping to ask about family or just engage in conversation. We could all do that, turn up, plant a smile on and engage with people, the main difference here, he did it with authenticity and made a habit of it. He took time out to remember partners names, remember big occasions such as wedding anniversaries and birthdays. As stated previously, not making the world turn, yet adding value to someone by positive engagement.
Everyday leadership is not always observable, it is the positive habits we carry out, the authenticity we embody and moreover, the humility in which we perform and act. If we practice the habits of this and be disciplined in our approach, it is inevitable that these actions will be observed. In the true spirit of leadership, I would hope that these actions are replicated and therefore enhance more lives.
So, to my definition of leadership, Inclusive. Authentic. Positive contribution. I don’t need to be a CEO to be this, I just need to recognise the space I work in and appreciate that leadership is everywhere and can be an everyday activity.