When asked to write about leadership for this month’s theme, I stopped to think about what makes a good leader. I have served in a wide variety of executive leadership roles for almost 20 years. At age 29, I was named the youngest director of a residential treatment center for juvenile sex offenders, and at age 35, I became the youngest Wooster City Council president after already serving four years as a city councilman. Throughout my nonprofit management career, I have been fortunate to serve on numerous boards in positions of leadership, and I have learned from some of the best along the way. Despite all of this experience, I still consider myself a student.
Now that I think of it, I should add one thing. In one of those city council victories of which I was bragging, I won with a not-so-overwhelming 50.5 percent of the vote. Post-victory, I knew of some who did not vote for me, but I certainly did not come across 49.5 percent who didn’t! I concluded that either the election commission had made a mistake, or that half of my fellow citizens did not like me for that position. This lesson taught me as much about leadership as any other single event of my life. I was still sworn in for the position—but with a mandate to lead with balance and consideration of opposing views.
Leadership is an awesome responsibility. And while it is easy to claim a leadership role based on a title, that doesn’t mean others will necessarily follow. True, sustainable leadership is earned—not mandated by position. Recently, I was accused rather directly of being a weak leader because, in the view of my critic: “I try to please everyone all the time.” While it is true that I try to listen to all the people all the time, I have never seen the end goal as making everyone happy. What I try not to do is yell, scream, name-call, bully or generalize. You see, I believe our ability to communicate effectively is eroding. Too often we dodge tough conversations and substitute email and texts, which leads to further dissonance.
Leadership today is not easy, but I don’t think it is because of the easy excuses we like to use: time, workload, social media racket, etc. I can’t imagine that effective leadership has ever been easy. Seriously, what time or place would I trade places with in order to be a more effective leader? Times of war or economic depression? Times of widespread disease, or living under an oppressive government? Compared to these situations, we have it easy. In fact, I think we often create many of our own obstacles with our own overreactions to situations. Today’s strongest leaders are able to rise above the chaos and, in a way, slow life down… if only for a moment, to respond effectively.
Congratulations to all of this year’s 40 Leaders under Forty—I encourage you to meet the challenges of your current and future leadership roles. As you lead in your strength areas, do not be afraid to follow in others. We can all learn valuable lessons by listening more. Don’t let the bully in the room dictate the dynamic of the room. Remember, it takes both courage and patience to be a true and effective leader. iBi