Our best leaders start life as ordinary people

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Our best leaders start life as ordinary people

Can you name half a dozen people you admire as leaders but feel you could never be like them? You look at those people and see nothing but confidence, clear sightedness and a range of other impressive qualities. You assume they have always been like this and make quick comparisons with yourself. All you see is a yawning gap, one that you could never cross.

If this describes you then you are not alone. We commonly believe that leadership is natural to some people, that they have what it takes while others do not. This view is hardly surprising. We have been exposed to the cult of the charismatic leader for many years. True leadership is presented as something special, a space where leaders with almost superhuman characteristics fulfill their destiny. No wonder so many good people step away, fearing that they are unequal to the task!

Let’s take a closer look at what leadership really entails, and see if there are after all, sound reasons for ordinary people to step up.

As I opened my newspaper this morning the first thing I saw was an imposing photo of Adam Goodes. Adam is a credible and highly admired leader of social reform in the areas of family violence and racism. Whenever he speaks people listen. He is a genuine force for change in society. As I read on, I discovered that Adam never saw himself as a leader when he was a younger man starting to play with the Sydney Swans. However, his commitment and passion for improving the lives of other Indigenous Australians led him to speak out with great courage and conviction. When he was awarded Australian of the Year, he used this as a vehicle to take his message to a much wider audience.

In the same newspaper I read Phillip Toyne’s obituary. Phillip was described as a shy young man who started with little more than a deep caring for the natural environment and a desire to preserve it. With others he became a well-known activist, placing himself in front of bulldozers to save ancient trees from destruction. He rose to become CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation and in this position inspired many others to join in with the work that he regarded as so important.

Thinking about these two leaders reminded me of another Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty. Her rise to leadership was the least likely of all. Rosie was propelled into the limelight after a shocking personal tragedy that left her determined to stop a similar thing happening to other families. She is now a high-profile and influential campaigner for an end to family violence.

I think you can see what these three people have in common. In all cases their leadership journey began with a deep conviction that something needed to change for the better. They cared deeply and they had the courage to make a start. Their rise to leadership was not based on any special qualities that they always possessed. In fact, many of these evolved after they took their first tentative steps into the public eye.

At the start Adam, Rosie and Phillip might have been as hesitant and unsure as you may now feel about your own capacity to lead. This is typical of the best leaders. They have a vision that they feel compelled to share and persist despite the obstacles along the way. Their stories tell us that the capacity to lead often develops gradually, and comes from the journey itself.

I have coached many leaders who are plagued with self-doubt and a fear that they will be exposed as imposters. This, despite the fact that those looking on think the person is doing an exemplary job. I often wonder if they have fallen prey to the idealized image of the charismatic leader who was born that way.

I have also met the few who express enormous confidence in themselves as leaders, but who base this claim on the lofty position they hold, the size of their budgets or the number of people over whom they hold sway. They crave power and define themselves by how much they have. This is domination, not leadership.

The best leaders are very different. They have a vision that they are impelled to share. They attract willing followers and lead from within, not from above. They appeal to the best in others, and generate energy and optimism. They open our minds to what is possible.

People like Adam, Rosie and Phillip have done these things and are role models for us to emulate. They are not superhuman. At heart they are just like us and we can be like them. They show us that the journey from ordinary person to inspiring leader is within reach of the many rather than the few.