By Doug Strickel
It was the fall of 1980, and I was a sophomore in high school. We were in the middle of two-a- day football practices before school started, and it was a typical hot August afternoon in Northwest Louisiana. At that time, sophomores were the new to high school and were also the new guys on the football team. Having that distinction, we were also the scout team for the varsity starters to practice against each day on the field. Back in those days, we did things like practice in full pads and tackle to the ground on a regular basis. The restrictions weren’t as rigid as they are today.
During the second practice of one of those days, things weren’t going very well on the scout team, and we were not putting forth our best effort against the varsity defense. One of the coaches called me over, grabbed my face mask, (you can’t do that anymore!) and made a statement that I will never forget. He said, “Son, do you consider yourself a leader on this team?” I am sure I answered “Yes.” I was not the best player by any means, but the position I played led to that role in many cases. His response was what I remember the most. “Son, if they ain’t following, you ain’t leading!”
Now, Coach’s grammar wasn’t solid that day, but the message was so true. Many years later, I would read an excerpt from Peter Drucker’s book “The Practice of Management,” where Drucker made a similar claim, that followers actually made one a leader. I am not sure Coach ever read Drucker’s book, but he sure understood the concept.
There is such a misunderstanding of leadership today. Many people associate a position with leadership. Managers, supervisors, owners, presidents, etc. have positions, but that does not make them leaders. Leadership is about influence. In other words, if there is no one following you, you aren’t leading anyone.
So, what’s the key to stepping out of a position and being a leader? First of all, one has to recognize that leadership is not about power, personal gain, pushing a personal agenda, or even intellectual horsepower. Leadership is about taking people somewhere they wouldn’t go on their own. While solid strategies or plans are important, people follow leaders, not plans. They follow leaders with a clear vision of a better future. They follow leaders who are genuinely invested in the people. When Martin Luther King Jr. stood on those steps in Washington, D.C., with all those people listening to him, he didn’t say, “I have a strategic plan that I want to share with you today.” He said, “I have a dream!” He communicated a clear vision of a better tomorrow, and people were inspired.
We need leadership in every facet of our society today. We don’t need more management positions filled or more governmental officials elected, but rather people in those positions to step up, make the decision to lead, and put the well-being of people first. The long-term success of any organization rests on the quality of its leadership. Winning organizations or teams have leaders who not only understand the key drivers to success, but leaders who care about people, see people as a valued asset, and who truly seek to serve those they lead.
Leadership is a selfless task that is always focused on the followers. The message won’t always be what the people want to hear nor what they always want done, but the message will always be honest, timely, and have the long term best interest of the people in mind. That’s what leadership is all about. That’s what makes one a leader worthy of following.