When I say that we can find inspiration in Gandhi’s story, I mean that we should recognize that the basic leadership decision often stems from an ordinary individual’s refusal to surrender to the context.
Gandhi takes his stand against the discrimination he feels, and the injustice he sees, in South Africa. In leadership seminars, when we discuss events like this in leader’s lives, I often ask participants to inquire of themselves: What are you willing to stand for? What stands are you willing to take?
In essence, I am encouraging all individuals to find leadership events and leadership opportunities in their everyday lives. One of my roles as a teacher and coach of leadership is to get them to reflect on these issues, to come to deeper levels of self-awareness, to help them recognize what is important to them, and to push them to make their stands in life.
When I ask students or corporate managers to find the ‘leadership events in their own lives, I am looking to provoke them toward two discoveries. First, I want everyone to understand that opportunities to influence a group present themselves often in the small events of everyday life. Second, the practice of reflection on “What do I stand for?” and “When and for what am I willing to take a stand?” is an important step for developing one’s self-knowledge and self-awareness, the self-knowledge and self-awareness that are at the base of any decision to lead.
At first, some students or seminar attendees are unable to find the leadership events in their own lives. When I ask them what they are willing to take a stand for, and when they have taken stands before, a small percentage of individuals are truly at a loss to respond.
On the one hand, I should not be surprised by the inability of some to answer this type of question. On quite a few occasions, I have begun a coaching relationship with a seasoned executive by inquiring: “What do you stand for?” Sometimes, mid-career managers with impressive rèsumés and outstanding results in their companies are surprised by such questions and unable to respond without my prodding. Why then should I expect students to craft rapid answers?
On the other hand, finding examples of what one is willing to take a stand for (whether in the past or present) is something that anyone should be able to do. Perhaps the difficulty stems from the perception that a leadership event, the moment when one takes a stand, should be a big, cataclysmic or Olympian happening. This is not at all the case.
In the beginning of our journey to self-awareness, I push people to think of their everyday events and relationships: their workgroups, student associations, sports teams, social groups, or even friendships. In any group, whenever we take a stand and express ourselves, whenever we make a statement or perform an action to influence our context, whenever we encourage change, it constitutes a leadership event.
In my next blog entry, I will give some simple examples from everyday situations.