One of the questions I always ask my leadership students is whether they believe leadership is an inherent trait or one that can be taught. The consistent response is they believe it can be taught but that some individuals have an innate tendency to be effective leaders while others do not. Thus, I, as an educator, go about the task of teaching leadership skills to and discussing leadership traits and characteristics with aspiring "innate" and "non-innate" leaders. In reflection, where I have come up short is not stressing what I view to be the most pivotal characteristic that separates great leaders from the rest of the pack—courage.
Author Meg Wheatley has defined a leader as anyone who is willing to help. With all due respect to Meg, I seek an extension to that definition, one that includes not only the desire but also the courage to help, particularly when external constraints, multiple pressures, popular opinion, or whatever other obstacle makes it risky to do so.
Certainly, it is far easier to stay under the proverbial radar screen, to avoid offending anyone, including family and friends, and/or to leave it to some other leader to tackle the really hard issues, garnering a critical mass around conversations that matter and actions that follow.
I truly worry about the divisiveness that is pervasive in today’s world, particularly in our own country. To me the reasons are frightening, whether they be the result of: close-minded thinking (“I'm right; you're wrong”), a dismaying lack of civility (people can say anything to anyone at any time, too often via social media, where thoughts and words can become undisputed facts), or intolerance for others who look, act, and/or belief differently than “we” and, thus, become stereotyped, marginalized, and/or ostracized.
As a framework for leaders who summon the will and stamina to act with courage in order to help make our state, our country, and our world a better place, I suggest we follow the advice of Dean James Ryan as described in his address to the Harvard Graduate School of Education Class of 2016.
Here are his essential questions that he believes his graduates (and every leader) should be asking:
- "Wait, what…” in order to preclude drawing our conclusions based on our own experiential base and/or bias.
- "I wonder” which he says can be followed by “what if"—in order to stimulate thinking about how to improve any circumstance(s) to the benefit of the common good.
- "Couldn’t we at least...?"—in order to take even one small step in getting past opposing interests and in the realm of shared ones, such as “Couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about ________?”
- “How can I (we) help?”—in order to convey that we as leaders don’t have all the answers and that often the best solutions to issues, in part or in entirety, come from those most directly affected, if only we take the time to listen intently.
- The final essential question is this: "What truly matters?" James Ryan says that this is the question that “forces us to get to the heart of the issue” and concomitantly to the essence of our own core values and beliefs.
In conclusion, which means you are nearly finished reading this lengthy piece, may each of us find the will and stamina to act with courage, applying James Ryan’s five essential questions to improve our corner of the universe and beyond.
P.S. There is a great bonus question from James Ryan‘s address, but that is for another blog at another time.