You know “tautologies,” right, expressions that use different words to define or describe the same thing? My favorite one is from the great Kouzes and Posner who write, “leaders go first.” I mean, a leader literally leads, right, like the car or horse “in the lead.” But gosh there’s a lot to that simple statement.
I was reminded of it, reading Brian Dickerson’s column in the Free Press last week. Dickerson was talking about how the comedian-satirist Jon Stewart says he’s most optimistic about America when, during a lane closure, he sees drivers merge cars like teeth on a zipper – left, right, left, right, they take turns, blending efficiently and willingly. Dickerson points out, this generally happens only after someone sets the right example with a kindly “go ahead” wave. “Compassion,” he suggests “is contagious.” In his column he calls on the bloggers, who tend to dwell in one ugly soup, to lead with civility – a message echoed over and over on Sunday after the hideous shooting in Arizona. Leaders – everyday leaders, he’s talking about – go first.
This combined phenomenon – our individual hesitance to lead, yet the power for good of everyday leadership – is one I’ve noticed often. I saw it daily, teaching high school and college, leading meetings, and now as a talk show host. It’s always the most challenging to get the first set of vocal chords and willing mouth to open up. The experience is so vast that I’ve wondered if it’s some deep ancient instinct that says: “Do NOT step out from the crowd.” Some primeval fear seems to remain in us. Yet once someone gets in the game, the social cost of entry seems to plummet (as if unconsciously everyone says to themselves, “huh! she didn’t get killed; maybe it’s okay to play.”). And of course, the “play” – the classroom, the meeting, gets so much better as a result.
On the radio, I’ll say “I’d love to hear your thoughts,” and, speaking to the collective unconscious fear, I’ll add, “you can be anonymous, or make up a name, or feel free to just say your opinion or question, then hang up.” Yet those invisible listeners are on the sidelines, arms folded, as if I’m asking them to dance naked at the junior high sock hop. I can go a half hour without a call. Then I get one, and as they say “the phone lines are lighting up.”
The implications of this duality of fear-and-possibility are unending, aren’t they? For authorized leaders, the point is clear: you must make it as safe as you can for peer contributions, and make sure to thank the first speaker. For parents, teachers, managers, pastors, there’s a need for patience, for some cleverness, and certainly for encouragement.
The biggest implication though is for each of us as everyday leaders to see that behind our fear stands great possibility. The first one in can be the a–hole who forces his way ahead in the traffic jam, the talk show caller who loves to whine, the worker who says the bs they think the boss wants to hear, or . . . You can praise when the culture is decrying. You can point out troublesome facts when the rest of the team is in denial. You can laugh at yourself when everyone’s being a little too self-serious. Or, you can just offer a humble opinion to get the bus rolling (it’s a lot easier to steer a moving bus.
A mentally ill man stepped out of the shadows and shot 17 people. Gave me goosebumps when to see it on CNN. Made me feel powerless at the utter randomness. But you, like I, will have 25 or 30 chances today to lead with goodness – to reveal all that’s best in people as
Leaders go first!