At the end of each semester I accept invitations to visit student clubs and selected writing classes to share about our leadership offerings at MSU. During my leadership course pitch I like to ask, “What do you think of when I say someone is a leader?” Responses usually include, “She’s confident,” “a great public speaker,” or “charismatic.” As I have written earlier, I like to add that I think a leader is anyone who wants to help. In my view, if we care about the world, we’ve all got a position in the leadership game.
Lately, I realized I have yet to hear students throw out that a leader is willing to be seen. It seems that a willingness to show up as “the decider” when times get tough, or to be marketed as a company asset should be added to my leadership traits list.
For some, being seen may be why leadership appears fun. At the helm of a new idea or initiative we get to be its poster child. “Isn’t she brave and wonderful?” can be a seductive phrase. Others admire us and acknowledge our gifts. However, this can be a dangerous pursuit if we are in the leadership position only for the praise it might engender.
A couple of years ago, I was able to speak personally with Jane Goodall who models for me a solid willingness to be seen for the greater good. We had about twenty minutes before she needed to stand up (she actually chose to stand on a chair so all could see her!) and speak to a gathered crowd of about 100 on a local eco-preserve. As we chatted about her Bozeman visit and the beautiful view from the home in which we stood, Jane remarked how delightful it is that when she appears at events animals are at their best and the weather is wonderful. She went on to tell me a story about giving a short sermon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the annual “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday. She recounted how the church was filled with dogs, cats, birds and other pets that initially were “talking,” as pets like to do. When she got up to speak, the animals all shut up and remained quiet throughout her speech. I had heard a similar story from someone who had traveled with Jane to Baja California years before to watch whales. In that case, a huge school of dolphins suddenly appeared and surrounded Jane’s boat for a prolonged visit.
Jane’s ability to captivate animals was not only a neat fun fact, but I was also struck that it was Jane who telling me the story. She seemed completely comfortable and seemed to convey that the “I” that she was speaking of was part of something bigger, doing what “it” was supposed to be doing. There was no ego engagement and she seemed as fascinated as I was by this capacity.
Leadership entails a willingness to play the role for all its worth. Be it a team captain or spokeswoman for those living beings who can’t speak Human. Jane seem to have a healthy detachment from the “I” that is me, but somehow not.
For my part, I find that I am most willing to be seen when I am called to support greater compassion and others fulfilling their potential. If I am engaging in what feels like my work, I am more interested and able to stand in that tricky limelight.
Before I was to teach my first graduate level course on resolving conflict close to a decade ago, I went to a wise long-time teacher for advice. I shared my nervousness and fears and she simply asked if I knew what I was teaching to be true. I said I did and she responded, “trust in the material and you’ll do fine.” This advice continues to serve me well.