Leadership: It’s What You Do, Not Who You Are


When I teach my leadership course, Exploring Dimensions of Personal Leadership, I often begin by asking the participants to share what they think leadership is.

What I find to be true most of the time is that people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what leadership is.  They tend to think of the NOUN “leader” and ascribe the notion of leading to people who are executives, who sit at or near the top of the organizational pyramid.    They likely see themselves more as “managers” – a somehow lesser species more engaged in tactical matters related to making their organization function.

I find this is a common misconception, no matter if I am speaking with bright MBA students, or experienced middle managers.   (Most execs characterize themselves as “leaders” without hesitation.)

We think that instead of thinking about the NOUN, “leader” it is more relevant to think instead about the VERB “to lead”.  Leading, after all is an action verb, and it is related more to what you do than what box you occupy on the organizational chart.

When we think about leading as a stream of actions, driven by feelings and emotional energy, we start to see that true leadership is all around us.   And, we all have the capacity to lead, should we choose to do so.

We can award you a title, give you a budget, a corner office, company car, and POWER.   But, no, that does not make you a leader. Sorry.  It is what you choose to do with these things that count more.

It is not only about how we conduct ourselves in our professional lives, but in EVERY aspect of our lives.  Leading, we have found, is more about influencing the thinking, feeling, and action of others; than it is about exerting power and control or developing bold directives.  By this definition, it matters not how many people report to you, or even IF anyone does.   We all project and example by what we do every day.  We are all role models.  We are all being watched by others (our kids, spouses, friends, and co-workers) – and we are all judged by what they see us do.

No, it is not limited to position, to gender, to line of work or even to age.

Take Severn Suzuki, for example.  In the 6 minute YouTube clip below, watch this 12-year-old speaking as he addresses the plenary session of a 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development. (It will make most of us reflect on what under-achievers WE are.)

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn Cullis-Suzuki has been camping and hiking all her life. When she was 9 she started the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. They were successful in many projects before 1992, when they raised enough money to go to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Their aim was to remind the decision-makers of who their actions or inactions would ultimately affect. The goal was reached when 12-yr old Severn closed a Plenary Session with this powerful speech that received a standing ovation.   In case you think she peaked at 12, consider that she also graduated from Yale University in 2002 with a B.Sc. in ecology and evolutionary biology. After Yale, Cullis-Suzuki spent two years travelling. She co-hosted (with her dad) Suzuki’s Nature Quest, a children’s television series that aired on the Discovery Channel in 2002.Today.  She is still speaking and influencing today.

As you watch this video, notice how the adults in the room are impacted by Severn and her words.

What did you think, watching her?   She had no direct power or authority.   She is just someone who has extreme passion for the environment, and decided to choose a life’s path in pursuit of it.   She seems to be living based on a leadership lesson she attributes to her father, who once told her that “You are what you do, not what you say”.

Not a bad lesson.  Leadership, too, is like that. It is not who you are it is what you do.   What are you doing?

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1 Comment

Filed under Leading, Personal Leadership

One response to “Leadership: It’s What You Do, Not Who You Are

  1. Her father is one of Canada’s most respected environmentalists…people do not become leaders without a relatable role model. If you have people around you who are smart, bold, passionate and authentic about putting their principles into action — and into the public eye, regardless of criticism — you are more likely to feel equally inspired.

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