Example 3: A Scandinavian woman studying in France was somewhat dismayed by the attitude some of the people in her building toward garbage and recycling. In her country, she said, people simply paid far more attention to the separation of waste. She thought that with a little more effort, they could do something more responsible for society and the environment.
As in the examples from the last entry, a single individual is faced with the dilemma of whether to take a stand or not. Moreover, as a foreigner, this woman questioned whether it was her role to talk about implementing change in a building where she was only renting an apartment for one year. Much of her hesitation stemmed from the fear of how her action would be perceived by the others.
In our leadership class, she told her story and asked her peers for advice. Unanimously, the other students encouraged her to just ‘go for it’. So, she decided to post ‘friendly’ notices in her building about respecting the separation of trash, then to speak with individual apartment owners informally, and finally to propose a meeting of the residents to discuss recycling policy for the building.
Her efforts were rewarded when her fellow residents began to make the effort to separate the recyclables from the organic waste. In fact, what she found was that the other residents cared little about the recycling issue itself, but most of them decided divide the trash because they were impressed with her courage in speaking her mind. The ‘protagonist’ in our story also remarked that the act of making a stand on an issue of importance to her had given her great personal satisfaction.
Often, the behaviour of others will change simply because one person who actively takes a stand can have an inordinate impact on others. As we saw in this example, it was mostly the simple fact of one human being speaking from the heart about a question of importance to her that caused those around her to change.
So, what do we learn from our three simple examples?
First, and most obviously, we emphasize again the point that leadership events are around us all the time in our everyday lives.
Second, and as we have emphasized time and again, leadership is a decision, and this decision is accessible to us all. Our three examples show clearly that the basic leadership decision is always the same, whether the individual is question is Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, or an MBA student who wants to change the way her study group functions. In all of these cases, leadership begins with an individual’s decision to take a stand, with the choice to influence the context rather than surrender to it.
Third, as it relates to our learning process, the magnitude of the event does not matter. We can always take stands on things in our lives that truly matters to us, whether the particular issue is large or small. What is important is our awareness of situations and our ability to learn from them.
Sometimes, I do exercises that focus on failed leadership opportunities in people’s lives. Are there moments in your life when you could have, or should have, taken a stand but did not? Do you see times in your past where you wished you had made the decision to influence the context?
When I ask people to find the ‘leadership events’ in their lives, past and present, I do it to raise their level of consciousness and to push them to reflect on their own experience. It is through learning to recognize our opportunities (both successes and failures) that we come to develop our leadership skills.