‘Charismatic’, ‘brave’, ‘daring’, ‘motivating’, ‘confident’ – these are just a few of the numerous words we hear when the qualities of a leader are described. We hear about leaders like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and we hear about what great ‘visionaries’ they were. Sometimes, however, ‘inspirational’ stories of these great ‘influential’ figures derail our understanding of the true meaning of leadership. The young generation of today is constantly being fed the idea that they have to be ‘big leaders’ in their fields, and in order to achieve that position, they must inherit the ‘big attributes’ portrayed by big leaders. Focus is then turned away from the work of the leaders, which is actually the most important aspect, and turned towards how to become charming, appealing, poised, and the list goes on.
For the past year and three months, I have had the opportunity to work very deeply with the concept of leadership. What I myself have learned and now teach is that, being a leader is very different from practicing leadership. A leader is a ‘person’ who instructs and commands a group to achieve given goals, whereas, leadership is the ‘action’ to fulfill a goal for common good. What most people don’t know is that a person who does not have the formal role of a leader can still exercise leadership and bring about change.
The simplest example of this can be taken from my own experience of when I was a teacher in a primary school. As a teacher, I was the leader of my fourth-grade class; the formal authority was with me. Once, I had warned the class that if they would not turn in their homework assignments by the end of lunch break, the whole class would lose star points. Normally, we would expect that the students would try to be better at finishing their work on time, at an individual level. To my utmost surprise, one of my students, Shumon, along with two other classmates, took the ‘ownership’ of this problem, and formed homework groups during lunch break, where they would ensure every student had completed their homework. This initiative of Shumon led to fantastic results, and I ended up rewarding them with more star points than ever before, as the homework turn-in rate increased by a huge amount. Although I was the ‘leader’ of the class, Shumon was the one practicing ‘leadership’ for his friends and that too with great success. He brought about a transformational change in his classmates just by introducing a simple intervention. Shumon did not have to be ‘motivating’ or ‘compelling’; he came upon a problem, and he just had to execute his action plan to solve the problem.
Now when I teach university students about leadership, I always start with this story. There is then no room for the common confusion that the youth have regarding having to possess this and that big attribute to practice leadership. Although exercising leadership comes with its own challenges, and there are certain elements that need to be studied, the main point is that, we need to stop advocating the wrong ideas. To bring about good change in our society does not require good ‘leaders’. If we preach to the young that a great leader needs to be a ‘great speaker’, then Shumon, who had a rather shrill voice, would never have the courage to take ownership of his classroom problems. Practicing leadership, therefore, does not mean that a person has to have any kind of given qualities.
In my opinion, our country does not need more leaders, which is what we are normally told over and over; rather there is a massive need for the youth exercising leadership to solve community problems on their own. We need to bring to the limelight the stories of the efforts of those who are trying to make Bangladesh a better place to live in, by however small amounts.
A leader with power is obviously endowed with tremendous authority, and with great power may come great responsibility, but with great acts of leadership, comes a great future for our country.