The Single Quality All Great Leaders Possess
After working hard throughout the first three years of high school, I was overjoyed to be appointed a captain of the Mock Trial team my senior year. My excitement at leading a group of peers for the first time overshadowed any underlying nervousness, as I believed the effort and skill required of a participant would automatically translate into my success as a captain. After all, how hard could it be to lead?
Nearly four years later, I still carry one particular experience with me. Our team was really two teams that would compete separately: Black and Gold. The former consisted of the more experienced students while newer recruits made up the latter. With this in mind, I made what I thought was the best choice for my school to win: I focused on Team Black. I didn’t consider that this might not be the best choice the everyone as a whole. As I focused on polishing its members, I inadvertently neglected Team Gold. This oversight largely escaped my notice, but it certainly did not escape theirs. The group chatted among themselves and a screenshot of a particular message was passed around, finally ending up on my own phone. The exact words have since slipped from my memory — but I will never forget the gist of it.
He only cares about Team Black; he never pays any attention to us! He doesn’t care whether or not we get better. He only works with Group Black because they have experience already. We have even less of a shot now.
This hurt. It hurt because I tried so hard to be a good, active captain. It hurt because I thought I was doing my best. It hurt because I felt I gave my heart and soul to Mock Trial.
But most of all, it hurt because it was true.
From that point onward, I completely changed my approach. But it was almost too late — I had already made a grave mistake.
If the people you are in charge of believe you do not care about them — even for just one moment — you can never truly lead them. This is the lesson I will never forget.
This fall, I will begin my appointment as Head Teaching Assistant for the introductory computer science course I have contributed to throughout my time in college. This time around, it is anxiety which overshadows my underlying excitement; I don’t want to repeat my mistakes. I want to be a better leader this time. I want to do it right. Unfortunately, I can’t just wave a wand and cure my worries. As personal development author Darius Foroux says, there is no simple way to rid yourself of anxiety. You have to deal with it.
How? I find a good place to start is studying examples of great leaders so I can incorporate their admirable traits into my own role.
So, what does it mean to be a leader?
Let’s take a look at what those more experienced than I am have to say:
“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.” — Jim Rohn, Entrepreneur and Motivational Speaker
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” –Ronald Reagan, Former President of the United States
“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence, and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” –Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” –Rosalynn Carter, Former First Lady of the United States
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” –Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese Philosopher
The consensus of these great leaders is clear. Though stretched across different fields, genders, and even time periods, they all agree on one thing.
It’s not about you.
Our world is fraught with misconceptions about what it means to lead. Cinema and media paint a glorified picture of attractive, charismatic leaders whose inspiring words capture even the hardest hearts. We grow up idealizing and cementing this representation of leadership. Leaders are tall. Leaders don’t get nervous. Leaders put their foot down. Leaders are popular, extroverted, strong, smart, funny, and just about every other positive adjective in the Oxford Dictionary. We create this image of leadership in our heads and then we relentlessly chase an ideal that doesn’t exist. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a flawless influencer that everyone admires and looks up to?
But this notion of leadership is unsupported by reality. Actual leaders are flawed, error-prone, and constantly criticized. They deal with anxiety, and they suffer from imposter syndrome. But more importantly, leaders don’t make leading about themselves. Every aspect of the idealistic leader above is concerned with said leader’s individual qualities. Sure, these characteristics might be helpful, but they don’t define a leader. The best leaders need only one quality, and that is to improve the quality of anyone around them.
This was my mistake the first time around. I wanted to win, and I structured my approach to leadership around that goal, inevitably leading to failure. I will not make this mistake again. As the fall approaches, I will let the collective goals, desires, and hopes of my team and colleagues mold my decisions. I will focus on doing the best I can for the people around me, and I trust that it will benefit everyone.
I urge you all to do the same.