Leadership is not a position

I was talking to a friend about a situation in which he felt powerless in the face of change. He was ‘waiting’ for an outcome about his future in the volatile manufacturing sector that was making him increasingly anxious and he was struggling to stay engaged. At times, he admitted, he felt depressed.

Waiting for what I asked?
Fate? Providence? Godot?

The difficulty with waiting for something to determine what happens to you is that it makes you feel less an adult than a child.

Your ‘locus of control’ (or the extent to which you believe you impact life) is farmed out to something beyond your self rather than remaining inside.

Given the demonstrated impact of the latter on job performance and satisfaction, it’s any wonder that adults in such an environment feel debilitated.

While there’s no doubt our superiors can and do make decisions that influence our lives, what remains in hand is our response.

Today’s workplace issue is as easily tomorrow’s illness, a car crash, the disintegration of the Eurozone.

Circumstances are often beyond our control. Our strength lies in how we interpret these events and also, how we act.

I could tell that my friend felt tossed about, but I could also see he had not yet grabbed the wheel.

What if this, what if that, what if … His energy was being leached into a sea of uncertainty and he was struggling to stay afloat.

My advice to him: stop!

He needed to find a way back to his core.

As humans we continue to seek certainty when none exists. We so desperately want a particular outcome that we can’t handle it when something different turns up. Buddhists call this ‘attachment’ and it is a way that our minds build pain.

But it reduces our ability to roll with tides; rather than adapting to circumstance we yearn for: what should have been.

We need to get underneath this. The first step? To understand what we are dealing with in specific terms.

We struggle to cope with what we can’t define, which means we need to name what is in front of us. We should also consider how much of our confusion stems from attachment and how much from other factors.

So, what was letting him down?

Much of his frustration it seemed stemmed from what he perceived as a lack of leadership in his immediate team. He didn’t know what was happening and wasn’t sure if his boss really cared. The parent company was calling the shots with no challenge from the regional heads.  He was disappointed.

I asked what an ideal leader would do?

This time, it took a while to respond. That is because it’s often easier to know what we don’t want than what we do.

While it’s all very well to say we don’t feel led, it’s harder to state what leadership looks like to us in practical, rather than theoretical, terms.

In an environment with many unknowns, which he accepted, he wanted a true sense of team. He needed guidance. Most of all he wanted his boss to fight the good fight and not seem defeated. In a nutshell he longed to be recognised and reassured.

So what was he doing personally to drive this change?

Now he went quiet.

You see, one of the consequences of looking outside is that the effect ricochets. Now we’re not just wondering about the job, we’re waiting for others to tell us what to do. He was at risk of the same passivity he resented.

How, I asked, could he be the leader that he wanted his boss to be? And how could he do that from where he was?

Although not a senior decision-maker within the business, there were hundreds of others around him who felt as he did. What was he doing to share information, provide guidance, create an environment that supported his colleagues to feel valued and engaged?

What he needed was an experiment in leadership at the most local of levels: himself.

We made a list of how people were acting that he thought was wrong. Then another of how he wished it could be which we translated into a set of actions – he committed to doing one thing from that list each day.

That way, regardless of broader outcomes, he was developing his own leadership skills. He would learn what worked and what did not, the relative impacts of all the different things that were happening. Irrespective of difficulty he could still have a tangible and positive impact.

It’s nicer to sail in the sunshine than in the hail but we know for certain that the weather will always change.

Yes we are still tossed about in tough times, but by steering a course through the daily practice of consistent and values-led behaviours, we put ourselves at the wheel.

In saying this I am not in any way underestimating the impact of the environment, which, as countless studies demonstrate, is powerful. This makes the work of doing what we can within our constraints even more critical.


  1. Name the game.
  2. Identify what’s being done both wrong and right.
  3. Write down what you think makes an ideal leader.
  4. Now translate that into a set of actions.
  5. Commit to doing one of the above each day and document what you learn.

Importantly: be the leader you ask others to be.

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