Who are the leaders in your life? What makes them a leader in your eyes? Do you consider yourself a leader? What does it mean to lead?
These are questions I've been living over the last six months. I was honored to be nominated for and accepted into The Next Generation of Emerging Leaders in Arts & Culture fellowship program here in Central Ohio. Along with nine other fellows, we meet once a month and ask a lot of questions about leadership, the nonprofit world and arts and culture in the U.S.
Recently, someone asked me what I've gained from the program. I talked about the usual for a while - being with a group of my peers, learning about leadership and so on and so forth. All good things, to be sure. It took me another 15-minutes of talking about some other topic to come back to the question and realize the deeper gift I've received from the program.
I have realized what real leadership looks like.
Before the fellowship, I was working with received assumptions about leadership. I thought you had to be brazen and loud and extroverted and charismatic and full of boundless energy to be a leader. I don't mean to trade one generalization for another, here, as I write. There are all kinds of leaders in this world. We have much to learn from all of them.
With all of those assumptions came the idea that no where in the fibers of my being - an introverted, imaginative, sensitive, thoughtful, quiet soul - was there a leader. Leader, me!? Ha! I'd never considered that I had the qualities of someone who might lead. It all seemed too grand for me. Too outside the realm of possibilities for this lifetime.
I have realized that real leadership is about listening. And that means leaders practice not only listening to others but listening to themselves. Standing by their center. Taking the time to hear their heart. Real leadership is not about the leader and how brazen, charismatic and selfless they are, because it's also not about martyrdom. It's about knowing what you stand for and standing in the center of that knowing, no matter what, and inspiring others to stand there with you while honoring their own knowing.
It's about aligning values with action and living from that place.
It's about being aware.
When I was growing up, my grandmother thought I should go into psychology because I was so good at being patient and listening to all of the other people around me, not just with my ears but with my eyes, too. And it is true - I have always enjoyed doing that for as long as I can remember, sitting with someone over tea, watching them be and hearing their story so I might offer some helpful advice.
I never thought this would result in a propensity towards leadership. I never connected the dots in that way. In some ways, I took it to be a sign of weakness - I was a good daughter/sister/niece/grand-daughter who listened, waited and watched.
Now I understand how listening and seeing are aspects of leadership no true leader can do without. I am growing stronger in my listening and seeing, then, even as I write this. And whether or not that leads to leadership for me, it will lead to me standing by my center more often than not, even as it continues to shift and bend underneath me. And that will help me help others find their center, too. And that will make me happy.
"Being a leader is like being a lady; if you have to go around telling people you are one, you aren't."