Who is a Leader? (Hint: You Are)

I had the privilege yesterday of introducing Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership: Best Practices From a 450-Year Old Company That Changed the World, for a presentation he gave at the University of St. Thomas yesterday, which was sponsored by Loyola Spirituality Center. Lowney spent seven years as a Jesuit before joining JP Morgan, a company in which he held senior positions internationally before leaving the firm in 2001.

Based on his experiences, Lowny realized that the large international company that is the Jesuits has faced many of the same challenges facing large companies today and that he same kind of strategies employed by the Jesuits in thier holistic approach to business, and specifically their ideas about effective leadership, could be a model for other kinds of businesses.

While there is much I could share from his talk, one of the important points he made came very early in his presentation. He opened by asking the audience to take a minute or two to think of the names of people they consider to be leaders, and then to share those names with those sitting at their table. After that, he observed (correctly) that most people named policital leaders (the President), religious leaders (the Pope) or business leaders (the head of this company or that). The more important point he suggested is that no one named themself and, he suspected, even if someone did think of themself as a leader, they would be unlikely to say that to another person.

That we don’t think of ourselves as leaders stems from a misplaced modesty that is connected to what he termed a broken and shallow model of leadership. We make the mistake of thinking leadership as being in charge. And if our vision of a leader is someone in charge of (a large and successful) organization, we think it immodest to think of ourselves as a leader. And that notion of leadership, he suggested, is a problem.

The definition of leadership, Lowny observed, is pointing out a way, direction or goal and leading others toward it. That is very close to the definition I gave in my introduction, which described leadership as the process of social influence in which one person enlists the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.

If we understand leadership in that way, he suggested, then we ought to understand that we all do that which leaders do all the time. We are all leaders, BUT we tend to lead subconsciously. And if we with to be more effective leaders, we need to be more explicit and purposeful about it.

We are all leaders, which means we all have an enormous opportunity and reesponsibility. The question is how will we make the most of it.