When is the right time to step forwards and lead?
In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio says, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Any and all of these things may be true at any one time for a aspiring leader. Sometimes we are placed in a position where we have little choice but to rise to the occasion, such as in trying to rescue our loved ones from a burning building. We might also be promoted to lead a team and although the bosses have confidence in us we are full of doubt and misgiving. More often though leaders seek the position consciously.
Sometimes one be born in a position that gives more opportunity to achieve our full potential. Without resorting to stories of silver spoons and royalty we need only to think of our socially, educationally and financially disadvantaged brethren and the mountain they must climb to achieve their potential. Nevertheless, the rise of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko in the South Africa of apartheid shows what talented and committed people can do.
I guess greatness depends on one’s personal definition and the context in which we find ourselves. It is an easy knee jerk reflex in some societies to think of greatness only in terms of as the collection of wealth and possessions by the dint of one’s personal efforts. That is a true and valid expression of performance in a particular social context but is it not also true that greatness can be claimed by the widow in Africa who lost her husband to AIDS is raising four children in poverty and has started a micro business? The perceived “wealth” is merely relative to the context but to me the principles of leadership and greatness are exactly the same in both cases.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Malvolio’s statement is “Be not afraid to achieve greatness –“. It is the rare person indeed that carries no voice of insecurity in their heads. This is that doubting voice, some call it the “saboteur”, that is loud and juvenile and demands to be heard at all of the worst moments; just when you most need your mature measured voice. Do you recognise it? Welcome to the human race! I can tell you that you are much more normal than you thought. I am a great fan of Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game” where he brings together the strands of many pieces of psychological research and very practical experience into a very simple and powerful concept. He once said to me that the doubter (Self 1 as he calls it) is a bit like a cheap computer with little processing power and very loud speakers. It can only process simple things and then shouts in your head. It is the voice of your emotions and fears. Self 2 on the other hand is a mega-powerful computer (maybe today’s cloud) that has massive processing capacity and its full potential is never exploited because it has the tiniest of speakers and is usually shouted down by Self 1. In order to release your potential, in this case for leadership, you simply have to find things to keep Self 1 busy and engaged. You cannot shut them out or shout them down as just like a child they just get louder and whinier! Like any new behaviour this is hard to do at first but with practice you can get Self 1 to be quieter and happy. The simplest mundane tasks such as just getting Self 1 to notice things that you would not normally concentrate on is effective. For me this was to refine my listening skills to the point where I can be engaged with someone fully in conversation but not have to say a thing for minutes on end. As my wife and friends will testify this is a change of almost miraculous dimensions! So, as fear and trepidation come from Self 1, if you can quieten those fears it gives you full rein to concentrate on the job at hand and most importantly your dreams!
So, let’s say you are no longer afraid of getting out there, you find yourself in an interesting situation where you believe that you can contribute as a leader, what next? Paraphrasing Shakespeare, John W Gardner said, “Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Very few have excellence thrust upon them“. This is a very interesting thought because until we are in a position where our leadership is required of us we do not necessarily have the skills required to achieve our desired excellence and the rewards that may bring. Of course the worst scenario for us is that we do not have the insight and awareness to know that we do not have the skills. It sounds a bit like Donald Rumsfeld but its true we often do not know what we don’t know until we know it.