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Time to Take Charge

‘The great pause’ caused by the coronavirus is an opportunity for emerging leaders

Back Commentary Jul 17, 2020 By Bill Mueller

This story is part of our July 2020 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Life won’t return to the way it was. We all know this painful truth. We hear stories of sleepless nights agonizing over how to keep food in the fridge and rent paid. Of finding work in a world where work stopped. Students graduating into the unknown. Lives interrupted.

Yet some have become inventive and aspirational during “the great pause” — not shrinking into it but striking back. For these people, the fact that life won’t return to normal offers hope. Though change brings disorientation and hardship, it also means that old patterns of suffering and injustice can be changed. The pages of Comstock’s magazine are filled with examples of people who had a dream and were not held back by age, authority or position. Great leaders inspire others to become better by following them.

Our contradictions, weaknesses and excesses are often the source of our greatest strength. This makes more sense when you consider that leadership, by definition, is not about fitting in, but standing out. Being different. Not hiding it, but cultivating it.

I’ve met many leaders — presidents and prime ministers, secretaries of state, army generals, senators, CEOs, sports heroes, mayors, and community and religious leaders — and each left an impression. What I was not expecting in these encounters was that, pretty much without exception, each leader was “a little bit not right.” 

There exists some trait, an obsession, a capacity or a defect within them that makes these leaders unique. They did not rise because they were perfect; rather, they became leaders because they drew energy from something inside or outside themselves that was outside of the conventional notion of being normal. They compensated, often in excess, far beyond the norm. This is the paradox of leadership and great leaders. Our contradictions, weaknesses and excesses are often the source of our greatest strength. This makes more sense when you consider that leadership, by definition, is not about fitting in, but standing out. Being different. Not hiding it, but cultivating it.

Here are five simple tips for emerging leaders to be different — to give rise to the leader within.

Listen completely. That was the advice Ernest Hemingway offered to an aspiring writer. “When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.” Don’t be most people. Today’s hectic pace of life, shrinking attention spans and background noise make listening hard. Give your full attention to those whom you’re with. Listening (and watching) is how empathy happens, and when we empathize, we understand the plight of those around us, fostering breakthrough insights that can improve our world. 

Ask questions. Many people don’t do this. They assume the first answer is the only answer and then move on. Questions spark curiosity, curiosity creates ideas, and ideas lead to innovation. They help you understand a thing more deeply, how it’s connected to other things and how to adapt quickly. Leaders love “why” questions the most. 

Seek mentors. Imagine getting smart advice, guidance, encouragement, exposure, visibility and networking help from someone you trust — for free. A mentor can help you learn faster than just books or your own experience. Some say there are no shortcuts in life. Wrong. Mentorships are the biggest life hack I know.

Find your mission. Most people live small. They get up, go to work, come home, play and repeat this cycle the next day. It’s not necessarily a bad way to be, but it is the status quo. Leaders are driven by something larger than themselves to improve the status quo. Find your mission. 

Don’t wait. Many people wait to give back — “after I get my degree, once I get settled, after I find a partner, when the kids are old enough” — but today’s challenges won’t wait. You shouldn’t wait either. Albert Einstein said that compound interest was the eighth wonder of the world. Small, incremental changes have a way of growing exponentially into something big. The world needs fresh thinking from people who are a little bit not right. Start now.   

The paradox of leadership was summed up beautifully by my friend and mentor Marian Kaanon, the president and CEO of the Stanislaus Community Foundation. Having been a young leader herself, I asked what advice she would give her 25-year-old self. “There will be many times that you feel uncertain or scared, but show up anyway,” she says. “Seek the wise counsel of others, but cultivate your own inner wisdom too. Be humble in your seeking and courageous in your doing. It’s OK to not know most of the answers. But don’t stop asking.” Wise advice indeed. 

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B Gorman (not verified)July 22, 2020 - 9:24am

Terrific column. I especially like your thinking around listening fully in order to reach empathy as indeed empathy enables us to truly dig deep into what matters most. I would add that great leaders also love "what" questions. "What if?" What about that" etc. This encourages open and non-guarded responses. Well done Bill!

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