Few self-help topics are as popular as leadership. A simple search on Amazon for leadership books shows over 30,000 books on the subject of leadership. Yet despite our abundance of leaderships books, talks, and trainings, our businesses, organizations, and families still suffer from a lack of it. Employees struggle, resources get wasted, and problems go unsolved. This leads to the question: how can a society that talks so much about leadership be so bad at it?
In my experiences, I’ve seen people struggle with leadership for two basic reasons: first, they’re so overwhelmed by all of the information on leadership that they don't know where to start. Secondly, even if they understand leadership, they still don’t know how to apply the information to the situations they face. They are simultaneously over-informed and under-informed about leadership.
I’ve struggled in my own life with these two things, never able to figure out what it actually meant to be a leader. To me, leadership seemed a lot about being the strongest, smartest, and loudest. Then last year I heard a definition of true leadership that cut through the clutter surrounding leadership, while also giving a framework to apply to unique situations. Here’s the definition that was so impactful:
Leadership is taking initiative for the benefit of others.
Let me show you how this definition gives you the tools, in the form of two questions, to transform your ability to lead and create meaningful action.
The Two Questions
This definition of leadership breaks the largesse of leadership down into two simple questions. Every time you are faced with uncertainty, use these two questions to clarify how to lead.
1. How can I take initiative in this situation?
In every situation, leaders ask how they can take initiative. What needs to be done? What’s holding things back? What problem must be solved? Taking initiative requires courage, which means fighting through fear and confronting a situation honestly and directly. At its heart, taking initiative means finding opportunities to do things better and having the courage to act on them.
Unfortunately, apathy, and not initiative, is the equilibrium state of the human heart. No one has to tell the CEO, pastor, or manager to maintain the status quo, it just happens. We know problems exist in our businesses and organizations, but we choose apathy instead of initiative because we’re scared, scared of risk and scared of the uncertainty that comes with action.
So use this question to clarify what needs to happen in order to move forward toward the future you want. A leader is a person who sees a problem or opportunity and takes steps to make it happen. Leaders act as catalysts, starting the conversation, moving themselves and those around them from a state of apathy into forward-moving action.
2. How can I benefit others?
Healthy leadership, though, consists of more than just taking initiative. Unfortunately, what often gets passed off as leadership is merely self-centered initiative, which isn’t leadership, but merely manipulation. History is littered with the destruction that these types of “leaders” cause.
For leadership to be helpful, initiative must be rooted in a love for others. So once you’ve decided what you need to do to take initiative, check your agenda with the second question: am I doing this for my own benefit or for the good of the people I’m leading?
If you naturally gravitate towards leadership, this question presents a necessary check on your motives. Initiating is hard, and we often won’t do it unless we get something out of it, whether it’s power, glory, or comfort. So many initiators, unfortunately, are experts at appearing like they are concerned for others while their motives remain mainly self-centered.
How It Works
So when you walk into a room, or a meeting, or your job every morning, start by asking yourself these two questions. The first question should force you to address what’s important and needs to be tackled, while the second question should realign your motives and ultimate ends.
I use these two questions every day to make me more aware of how I can lead in the different roles I’m in. The first question makes me constantly looking for opportunities to lead, and the second question causes me to become more open to the needs of people around me. They will help keep you from the two biggest temptations when it comes to leadership: apathy on one side and imposing your own will on the other.
What It Means
I hope these two questions show you that anyone can be a leader, regardless of whether you were ever anointed as a “natural-born leader.” So many people and groups are waiting around for someone to lead them, denying their own potential since they don’t have the right “gifts” to be a leader. While some do have more natural talent than others, you have the ability to lead in some capacity, and chances are your community, organization, or family needs you to.
So whether you’re a CEO, teacher, stay-at-home mom, office worker, or entrepreneur, you can be a leader by taking initiative for the benefit of others. Start looking around today for how you can help solve the lack of leadership that so hampers every level of our society.