There are images of this world that become ingrained in subconscious – images which take months and sometimes years to develop, sometimes emerging fully formed, helping us see and interpret the world in very specific ways. To understand this, I did this small exercise with students to see how they interpreted and viewed leadership in their everyday life. Specifically telling them to look at their own spaces: families, friends, workplaces, and communities, I asked them to understand what they see as good leadership, and how they developed that image of leadership.
And the results were…expected. Typically, students appear to view leadership as a position to be aspired to, and not as an activity which can be undertaken successfully by all of us. This was perhaps the biggest lesson I had to impart in this particular course. However, to bust the myths, one has to first understand the myths. And from this small exercise, these are the prevailing concepts that students use to both understand, and choose their leaders:
1. A good leader is one who has a good personality – there is something irresistibly attractive about this person. Whether it is physical appearance, or accent, she/he draws the public in.
2. A good leader is one who helps us when we have problems – we need them to make change for us. We give them that power, so that our lives become better.
3. Good leaders are primarily concerned about the sanctity of the group. All their efforts should be directed at keeping the group together, and in ensuring that conflicts do not split the group – or ‘spoil’ the group atmosphere. (This is one of the most common statements I encountered). Thus, the leader should protect the group from all kinds of threat: internal and external.
4. The one who makes the decisions is the leader. Students exhibited a particular kind of disdain for opinion-sharing. While the sharing of opinions is important, however the leader has to make the decision – and it is okay if this decision puts a few members in the minority. This is the leader’s prerogative.
The issue here is still that of leadership being out of our reach. The problem when we look at our authorities for answers, when we glamourise leadership is that it becomes equally easy for us to disclaim responsibility of our own lives. Leadership is seen as the talent, or alternatively the burden, of the few who work tirelessly for the rest of us. An equally significant image of leadership that crops up over and over again is that of sacrifice. Giving up our own comforts, our own lives for the pursuit of our dreams, our hopes is another deep-rooted myth which I confronted time and again.
And I will not blame ourselves for upholding and following these principles. For centuries we have glamourised and looked up to those extraordinary men and women who changed our worlds. We have made them our heroes, put them on pedestals, and worshipped at their shrines. However, as the world falls further into incredibly complex problems, pinning our hopes and dreams on a few, extraordinary individuals seems to be rather futile. The more we look to our authorities for answers, the more they fail us, and instead of searching for our own solutions, we mindlessly look for replacements. How long can we continue down this sisyphean path?
Leadership lore today is filled with how everyone can be leaders. Starting with the small,everyday moments where one can impact someone else’s life, to the biggies: managing and leading teams, starting own companies and ventures, identifying and designing creative solutions to deep-rooted, systemic problems. For me, the first step in making leadership available for my student, was to demonstrate that leadership is not something to be scared about. Failure is not something to be ashamed of. By creating spaces in the university where it was okay for students to try and fail, it was okay for students to attempt the impossible, I saw big differences! I am only just starting down this pathway to my own enlightenment, but I do believe I am on the right track.