On Leadership and Leaders
Not to be confused with group project tyrants
I’m a leader because I tell people what to do...
I wrote that sentence in a sixth-grade personal reflection assignment.
I’m not one to store physical keepsakes, but I have a small box of key work from past English classes starting with a 1st-grade picture “book.” I scanned and digitized every page two weeks ago, a few days before Akimbo’s Emerging Leaders Program (more on that to come...). The program highlighted what I’ve learned about leadership since then, which is nothing close to what my sixth-grade self believed.
I used to be that person in a group project. I had a plan for every prompt and assigned roles and deadlines accordingly. I was in charge. I made sure everyone was on-track and frequently checked on (via email…). I was unbearable.
Somewhere along 9th grade, I realized my approach resulted in awful teamwork. I wasn’t learning, relationships with past and current team members remained tense, and each assignment spiked my stress levels 10x higher than necessary.
I was a micromanager, too insecure and narrow-minded to consider that incorporating others’ contributions may result in a better outcome than my original idea.
With this approach, projects usually developed as follows: My overbearing introduction established a dynamic of 0 trust. Group members felt their ideas wouldn’t be considered so they didn’t speak up. My “unanimously approved” plan prevented organic commitment by forcing a vision that didn’t motivate or inspire the team, and my fear of having to do everything myself became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder everyone seemed like a “slacker.”
After ~30 college group projects, I’ve had many opportunities to correct my definition and approach for team leadership. I've significantly modified my approach with the following guides:
Start by discussing strengths, interests, and goals my team members would like to bring to the project
Open the space for ideas. Really listen, don’t just wait to insert my own.
Pursue an idea, subject, and method that incorporates everyone's interests
Ask team members to volunteer for sections. Accountability is self-assigned, not imposed.
Meet only when necessary. Trust my teammates to complete their sections well without frequent meetings.
Gather feedback throughout and at the end. How was I as a team member? What did they appreciate? What could I do better? How valued did they feel? Did I facilitate accomplishing their personal goals for the project?
So how does team leadership differ from teamwork? It’s a somewhat abstract difference, but I see leaders as setting the stage for others to contribute. They share their vision for it to be molded by the team. They listen and see opportunities to achieve everyone’s personal goals to boost team goals. And they inspire their team members to take ownership and commit by choice. They focus on creating the foundation, not just the building that goes on top (although they fully contribute to the visible construction too).
The more theoretical, beyond-school-and-group-projects leadership
There are entire books written on leadership, and I will not attempt to offer an outline or share my own experience. I’ve simply gathered a collection of quotes from Seth Godin, the founder of Akimbo, and the other students in the program this week. The list barely scratches the surface but each idea resonated with me and inspired further thought:
Leaders say “I'm going over there, who wants to come with me?” and even if their first steps are alone, eventually, people follow. Not because they’re forced to. But because they’re moved to.
Leadership is a choice, management is a job. Both are necessary, but they’re not the same.
Leaders create an environment where people choose to change.
Leaders take responsibility and accept failure as part of the process.
Leaders know where they want to go and provide the necessary tools to their team to get there.
Leaders do not have a certain method or personality in common. They commit to a vision, communicate it, empower their team, and shape their culture. All the specifics in between and throughout can be anything at all.