One of my favorite questions for students, managers, or team members is “Why don’t we dare to make our stands, to express ourselves, and to try to master our context more often?”
In this question, the key word is ‘dare’. Most often, we simply do not dare to speak our mind, to take stands for what we believe. Students and managers are hesitant to exercise the influence they have in their groups.
Near the beginning of an MBA leadership class, we spend some time on our ‘working definition’ of leadership. While we always end up using numerous characterizations of the term, one of the definitions I like is one I heard at an academic conference some 10 years ago. At a basic level, leadership is simply ‘disproportionate social influence’.
I like this definition because it is simple, but also because it helps us go beyond stereotypes. At the first class session, I often ask students to talk about a leader and to explain why they think he or she is effective. Of course, most individuals find their examples in well-known people who lead or who led from the top of an organization, a team or a nation. While these may be interesting examples, I then encourage them to reflect about how leadership happens without authority and without power.
Often, the most interesting examples of leadership come from situations where the leader is not formally appointed or elected. If we agree that leadership is always about influence, and that it is ‘social’ by definition (in other words, leaders and followers interact in a group), the word ‘disproportionate’ adds an interesting element.
In the word disproportionate, we see two possible meanings.
First, in most group situations, the norms and behaviors of the group will influence each individual more than the individual will influence the group. However, in some cases, an individual’s impact (through words or behavior) will change something fundamental in the group’s nature.
Second, an individual’s influence may be disproportionate relative to his position in a hierarchy. In other words, someone with no formal power or authority, someone who is not a boss or director, may have an enormous impact on those around him.
Having a disproportionate influence on one’s context, on one’s co-workers, on one’s enterprise: how does this happen? Often, it happens when we have the courage to take our stands, to speak out about the things that matter to us, to find our voice.
When it does not happen, it is often because we do not dare. We decide not to lead but rather to keep our ideas and opinions to ourselves. After all, mastering the context, speaking from the heart about things that matter to us, putting ourselves on the line with our colleagues, all of these things appear difficult.
Perhaps we should heed the wisdom of the Roman philosopher Seneca (5 BC-65 AD), who is known for declaring: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult”.