What is Everyday Leadership?
I consider myself lucky. I get the opportunity to engage with managers and leaders every day. Every time I do so, I ask for their definition of everyday leadership. The responses are staggering in their variety. They range from ‘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 thoughts from around the world.
I have my own definition of both management and leadership. This is generally what I look for in a leader. I am also 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 guidance. They are in a position of being able to interview, research or get access to leaders. I consider this a privilege.
There is, however, still no consensus on everyday leadership. Either as a set of behaviours nor practical actions. No wonder people become confused about the subject! I think there is a lot of overlap on much of the writing yet weekly it seems that a new model is produced. In this reflection, I look to provide a concept of leadership from a variety of sources 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.
To Coin a Phrase
With so many thoughts and idealisms on everyday leadership can we really coin it into a phrase? What is it that we are looking for? 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 good grounding 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 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. It’s 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. An NHS porter retrieving a patient from the theatre after their shift because they were the one to take them there. A payroll assistant 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, that these are practices that they should be doing anyway. I have been fortunate to see these actions play out. When I asked, ‘why that action?’ it is the thought and consideration behind the action that shows leadership. In the examples provided, not performing these small acts would not have changed the world. Nor would they be captured for millions of people to see but that’s not the point of everyday leadership.
Everyday Leadership Through Small Actions
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’, ‘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. 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’.
‘When I do this in a playground full of children, every single time someone else follows suit’. On a basic level, this makes his role easier [with a smirk], on a deeper level, I am helping people respect their surroundings. Not everyone does this, I see students dropping litter all the time when I pick it up 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 followship. On an ethical level, a morality, an authenticity to do the right thing. This is not because someone will judge you on it, it is 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. It states 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 an 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 believe, that when leaders model positivity and integrity, people follow. 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.
Consistency in Leadership
When I have reflected on leadership, I see it as a set of behaviours and values that happen consistently. 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, if you consider leadership as beyond you, you make an excuse not to expect it from others. If you were to embrace leadership in your everyday actions, 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. We need to recognise 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.
Consistency of Behaviour Is a Habit
This thinking leads me onto considering the late Steven Covey. His book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is 30 years old and yet remains topical within the discussion on leadership. Following the everyday leadership theme, Covey presents us with certain habits that mark 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 on how we choose to respond is often a split-second decision. This is why I believe Covey chose to mention this, it does take practice. Practice a behaviour 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. These were listed as ‘setting a compelling vision’ and ‘ensure the team are following you’. This then 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.
Discipline in Everyday Leadership
There is a discipline to everyday leadership. Very often linked with humility which is where people struggle with the concept. Through failure, often multiple failures, leaders 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. For example, I had a boss many years ago who walked around the office every single morning. He did it 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 through positive engagement.
Everyday leadership is not always observable. It is the positive habits we carry out, the authenticity we embody 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 everyday leadership – inclusive, authentic and 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.
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