By Susan McCusker '99

Do you consider yourself a leader? 

If so, is it because you have a title in an organization?

Perhaps you’re a stay-at-home parent?

Or an empty-nester, a bit uncertain about what comes next?

Are you a student or a new graduate, embarking on your first job? 

Almost all of us think we know what leadership is. Most of us are saturated in the concept; we read books, attend seminars, and constantly expose ourselves to the idea of leadership from very early on in our lives.

But we’re missing a big piece of the picture when we focus on leadership only in a hierarchical fashion. Leadership is not a position. It’s not even a work role. There is no special gene, no special personality type, no special certificate or degree that makes us a leader. You can be extremely competent, perhaps excellent, at your work. But leadership isn’t about tasks. It’s about influencing hearts and minds. 

This requires a skill set that most of us have to delve deep within ourselves to create. We are not born with these skills; we develop them. They are hard-won because they require that we learn about ourselves. So how do we engage in this mysterious task of knowing ourselves so that we can lead from within? The answers are myriad and personal to each of us. However, there are a few things that can help most of us on this journey:

  1. Be willing to constantly learn about yourself. This means opening yourself to feedback from others, including criticism. Most of us have to find some inner fortitude to go about this process, but there are good resources available. Start with the work of Brené Brown.
  2. Cultivate time to reflect. That can be meditating, exercising, walking the dog, or turning the radio off in the car. What to reflect on? How things are going, what you think is working most well, and what is working least well, where you know you need work, and where you can shine a light for others.
  3. Have a teacher. In our advanced world today there is no excuse for not having a teacher. Your teacher can be someone you follow on a podcast, or a favorite author, or a real-life person you know. Be mentored, be taught, keep growing.
  4. Find a good coach or therapist. Yes, it’s painful work. But the work of uncovering our inner leader requires a safe place and a hand we can hold on to. Seek these people out throughout your life.
  5. Engage deeply in your faith. Our spiritual lives teach us the humility of leadership and ask us to use that leadership to serve others. There is no greater leadership than service. 

True leadership requires that we understand who we are inside, and what makes us tick (the good, the bad, and the ugly). This doesn’t have to be trial by fire. If we start talking more openly about leadership as an ability to know oneself well, rather than to be defined as a role, and we acknowledge that leadership has NOTHING to do with hierarchy (nothing to do with work, actually), then we can get down to the nitty-gritty work of supporting one another through the inner discovery process that is the hallmark of excellent leadership.

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