What makes someone a leader? How do we define or measure leadership? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. There are the iconic examples— leaders like Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs—who impacted the world on such a large scale. But what about the everyday leader, whose small acts make one or a few people’s life better?
A number of years ago I took a week off and signed up for an Outward Bound sea kayaking course off the coast of Maine. There were 15 participants, all professionals from various fields, and 2 guides kayaking from island to island, regardless of weather, carrying our own food and equipment.
We spent the first day orienting ourselves to the boats, safety protocols, and organizing our food and gear. That evening around the fire the guides asked us how we wanted to organize ourselves each day. Did we want to rotate who was in charge each day or have roles we kept throughout? The group almost unanimously decided that we didn’t need a leader or anyone in charge–we were all professionals after all.
Every morning we would wake up, go for a swim in the chilly Atlantic, eat breakfast, pack up and paddle to the next island. Because no one was in charge, it was unorganized and inefficient. We would leave later in the morning and miss the calmer water and encounter more wind. One day we left so late we arrived at our destination island in the dark. We had to carry our heavy boats over a rubble strewn beach when 100 yards away was a beautiful sandy beach. Once done with that treacherous feat, we had to set up camp and cook dinner by flashlight. It was difficult and exhausting.
Towards the end of the week, the guides pulled me aside and informed me that the next day we would face the longest open water crossing of the trip – 4 miles – and we would be crossing a busy shipping lane. They asked me to be the leader and make sure we were prepared for the day, left early, and had a clear navigation plan…and I had to tell the group that I was the leader. I was one of the youngest people in the group and it felt like a bit of a set up, but I agreed. Before dinner, I spoke to each person privately. I shared what the guides had told me about the next day and asked for their help.
When I began the planning meeting after dinner, people were already acting differently. Everyone leaned in and there was excitement and possibly relief that someone was in charge. We identified the different jobs and roles that were needed and people signed up for them.
The next day was completely different than any of the previous days. It took us less than half the time to break camp and get on the water. Aside from helping to organize the morning departure, I realized that my biggest job was to pay attention to blood sugar and call for food breaks. The day progressed smoothly, even when we had to cross the shipping lane in our flotilla of kayaks, and we arrived at our destination early.
At the time I was surprised and I’ll admit a little disappointed, that no one said a word to me about how well the day went. But then again, I didn’t really do much and certainly nothing heroic or life changing. Anyone in the group could have done what I did so maybe I wasn’t really being a leader?
As I reflect back on this experience, it has me thinking about how we define what a leader is and what a true leader does. What is the impact to ourselves and our organizations if we default to using a largerthan life measuring stick for leadership? What if being a leader is only reserved for a few (and it is someone else’s job)? What happens when everyday small acts go unnoticed and only the grand, world changing actions are recognized?
If you are at all interested in exploring this idea, either for yourself or, better yet, with your team, check out Drew Dudley’s TEDx on Everyday Leadership. You will not regret the 7 minutes it takes to watch this funny, inspiring and insightful presenter and I would love to hear your examples of everyday leadership or as Drew calls them, “lollipop moments”. Check out the video below.