Anna Led With Her Best Self



I told my students in the very first week of January:  “I am not THE leader in here.  Anyone and everyone can lead. This is, a class about leadership, so lead.” In my crazy view, life itself should be that class where we strive to get everyone – to lead – to invite, inspire, encourage, and enable others to do the things that only they can do.*

So I begin with a question:  Do you explicitly tell your students, staff, children, congregants who “report” to you that you want them to lead?  It’s darned hard, because most have been profoundly socialized to think:  “that’s your job.”

I also told my law students:  This is a laboratory to observe how leadership and authority work; so experiment and observe! They observed and most experienced genuine confusion when I didn’t clarify everything perfectly as their teachers have done for most of their 17-20 years in school. Like prisoners who stay in their cell even when the door has been opened, they ventured out slowly.  But like fish thrown back from the boat, most looked stunned for a time, but then found their natural strength. By the end last week, I was thrilled at the output: students reviewing each other’s papers, online posts with awesome links to YouTube and leadership articles, and even a class-wide charitable giving project. Think of what  a waste of resources it would have been – given my class with young lawyers from Australia, Turkey, Japan, Greece, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, and Georgia — if had played the Shell Answer Man, the Oracle, the Font of wisdom.  Can you imagine the richness when we talked about the intersection between the market and governments, given this array of international experience!   None of us wanted the class to end – me least of all, as follower every bit as much as leader.

Then there was Anna from Australia.  From ten minutes into that first class in January, she leaped out of the confining role of follower-student. She volunteered to do the lecture on leadership and the free market. She changed the course of classroom conversations as though she were the teacher. She unabashedly queried the class, “Why are the online forums such a flop?” and then she convinced me to alter the grade/reward system in order to heighten the participation and quality of those online discussions. Other students built an accountability system and discussions skyrocketed. Why was she so motivated, so comfortable throwing away “the” leader and instead leading?

This to me is THE most important leadership question:  How do we unleash the Anna in all of our followers?  They need not show up as BIG, bold a–kicking leadership like Anna did.  (Indeed, I may write about Jackie next week whose leadership was so quiet, some might think it wasn’t leadership at all.)  Here are some of my thoughts – to prime your thoughts, actions and comments — on how it happens:

  1. You acknowledge the heck out of each individual for their “small” wins.
  2. You publicly celebrate their initiative and leader-like accomplishments.
  3. You constantly – until you’re sick of it – invite and expect people to reach beyond!
  4. You help people set goals that push them to reach beyond.
  5. In every way you can you let them know it’s safe to try and to fall short.
  6. You believe they can lead and continually build your faith in them.
  7. You continually create and point out opportunities for them to lead.

What do you think is most important?  I invite you to think about someone on your team, in your family, or in your classroom who’s snug in the great vast and passive middle of the bell curve.  How might you nudge them to risk 

Leading with their best self?!


* Paraphrasing Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.