For decades now, leadership professors and leader development specialists have categorized leadership using an uppercase letter: Leader, verses a lowercase letter: leader. This is helpful in determining how different people influence a team.
First, those who appear to be natural leaders, often in positions of authority, are Leaders. The uppercase L is often a person with extraversion, usually confident, and one who others naturally look to in times of decision. Those who aren’t natural leaders fall into the lowercase l category. They may not have a leadership role, but they still influence.
In one sense, Leaders is a noun and leaders is a verb.
What This Means for Students
Students frequently avoid signing up to be a leader due to misconceptions they have about leadership. They can miss the fact that they’re influencing, and in a sense, leading others all the time. When I teach leadership, the question I get most often from students is:
“Do you think everyone is a leader?”
The answer, of course, is yes and no. (How’s that for a politically correct answer?) It all depends on how we define the word leader. If we define it in the traditional fashion — that a leader is someone with a position of power in charge of a group of people in an organization — then, the answer is no, in my opinion. Not everyone and certainly not every student is gifted to become president, chairman, CEO, or the top Leader of a team of people. Perhaps only ten percent of the population will. These are Leaders. We will frustrate students by telling them they are all Leaders. They’ll be disappointed when they discover this is a lofty aspiration they’ll never attain. We create a false expectation.
If we define leadership, however, in a different manner, it opens up an entirely new perspective for students. What if leadership was more about people pursuing a passion in their life, a calling with which they will influence others in its fulfillment? What if it had more to do with finding an area of strength—and in using that strength—they naturally influence others in a positive way?
Three Myths We Must Help Students Overcome
When I challenge students to be leaders and they push back on the idea, it’s frequently the result of a myth or misconception about what leadership means. Here are three common myths we must dismantle:
1. Leadership means you want to control everything.
When kids see politicians or business higher-ups display a domineering leadership style, they can assume this is what leaders naturally do. And it’s often a turnoff. We must help students see that control is a myth. No one is in control of people or of circumstances. COVID-19 is a prime example. Instead of control, effective influencers pursue connection and influence more effectively.
When college student Karly Hou returned home to Palo Alto, CA this spring, she discovered her younger peers were struggling with virtual learning. With extra time on her hands, she and some friends from different colleges started an online teaching center called Wave Learning Festival. Over 3,000 learners from 31 countries have signed up. College students now volunteer their time to teach these free, live, interactive online classes and are leading the way in helping remote education occur more effectively. These leaders are influencing thousands.
2. Leadership means you manipulate people.
Another common assumption students have about leadership is that it is manipulating others to get them to do what you want them to do. This is not leadership; it is coercion. Manipulation is about moving together for “my” advantage. Motivation is moving together for mutual advantage. Everyone wins.
You may have heard of the gigantic protests for racial equality in Nashville this past month. What you may not have known is they were organized by six teens. Emma Rose and her five co-organizers started a group text chat after meeting on Twitter and launched an organization, Teens 4 Equality. They organized a protest to send a message of justice to city lawmakers. The students hoped to get a thousand people involved. The march was peaceful, with no arrests made and featured people of all ages, races, denominations, and backgrounds, just as they’d hoped. And it was bigger than they expected. Their organization now has 25,000 followers on social media, and they plan to lead more future marches. No manipulation, just motivation.
3. Leadership means you are better than others.
A third common myth is that people step up to lead because they feel superior to others. While this may be true for some emotionally unhealthy individuals, this is not authentic leadership. In fact, healthy leaders often have no feelings of superiority, but instead, they feel compelled because someone needs to do something about a problem. If someone else stepped up, they’d gladly step aside.
Lucy Blaylock is an 11-year-old on a mission to comfort kids going through difficult times, one blanket at a time. She learned how to sew three years ago when she made a quilt for a friend’s birthday. After the party, she asked her mom if they could put together a blanket giveaway for children in need. She assumed some organization was taking care of these kinds of needs, but when she put the word out on social media, she received 16 messages from parents of kids battling cancer, autism, and bullies. She couldn’t choose just one. So, Lucy has made 500 blankets for kids from all over the U.S. and 14 countries.
It seems to me, every one of us possesses some strength that enables us to exercise positive influence. Healthy leadership is about serving others in the area of our giftedness. When we do, we naturally ripple with influence. This is a larger segment of the population, those who are leaders, not Leaders. They are everywhere, and we must prepare them to influence their worlds. This is why I choose to define leadership in this way:
Leadership is leveraging my influence for a worthwhile cause.