The Meaningful Leader
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
"I am my father's son
His shadow weighs a tonne.” Idles
In 2006 I was sitting in my room staring at my required reading. I was studying at a leadership academy and these books were considered the essentials. The names are well known: John Maxwell, Rick Warren, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell. As I finished each book I was always left with the same feeling of inadequacy.
I’m not this guy, they’re brilliant and successful. I struggle waking up in the morning. I just want to play football, meet girls and play FIFA.
Typical thoughts for any 18 year old. Yet I knew what was coming, in a years time I was going to lead the Youth Department in my Dad’s thriving Church. I would be doing a lot of public speaking, creating plausible visions and strategies, budgeting, recruiting, training, marketing and mentoring (to name just a few things). In my morning lectures I would sit and listen to business leaders, charity specialists, world renowned writers and speakers with the same feeling always gripping me:
I’m not good enough.
Why did I say yes to this? I’m not that person.
Leadership was something I never gravitated towards. I was never asked to be a captain of a team, never remotely considered to be a leader in school, I wasn’t even the leader in my peer groups. I simply was not a leader.
My Dad was a leader. Highly motivated, a brilliant communicator with an insane work ethic and inscrutable integrity. He literally never stopped pushing forward, he woke up every day almost jumping at the possibilities the day presented him. This enthusiasm was directed at me and my brother on a daily basis;
“You can achieve anything you wanna do son, just put your mind to it”.
“Focus and even the things you struggle with you’ll find success”.
Despite his very challenging upbringing and learning difficulties, he was an achiever, a voracious reader and a student of leadership. He still is. Always seeking to improve himself and subsequently has brought direction and growth wherever he has lead.
I was not him and I knew it. I was lazy, addicted to porn, computer games and designer brands. I cared more about the name on my feet and then what my name meant to the people I was going to lead. I was a bit of a loner who struggled being in a team. How was I going to lead anything? The academic year finished, we had our graduation ceremony and in September I would be starting my new role.
Despite a year of intensive leadership training and coaching, I was not ready. My first team meeting where I was supposed to present my vision and strategy for the upcoming year was a disaster. It was so bad my Dad got up half way through the presentation and told the team of volunteers to be patient with me, while giving them some direction for the next 6 months. On the drive home, I had a conversation with my dad that has stayed with me for the past 15 years;
“Dad, why did you ask me to do this? I’m not a leader.”
My Dad runs his hand through his hair, this is the signal that wisdom is about to be shared,
“Dan, no one is born a leader. They become a leader.”
Me having heard this almost everyday for a year, roll my eyes and retort,“What on earth does that even mean?”
“That this will only grow as far as you’re willing to grow yourself. A leader is just someone who takes responsibility for something and then decides to learn everyday, how to be better at handling that responsibility.”
In the past 15 years, those words have proven invaluable. Leadership in my lifetime has been defined by one word; Influence. John Adair called influence the quality in a person that makes others want to follow them. Mal Fletcher called influence the ability to produce positive or negative change. While I couldn’t agree more with either statement, for me leadership is the product of responsibility.
We all live out what we have chosen to be responsible for. Our career choices, our family choices define us. I believe that whatever you define you empower and give it a responsibility.
A conversation with my oldest son brought this realisation home for me.
“Papa, what does it mean to be a dad?”
“It means I’m responsible for looking after you, son.”
My ever inquisitive son responded, "Is it because you care about me, that you’re responsible for me?"
When you care about something enough you are enveloped by a sense of responsibility. Apathy suddenly melts away and something profound takes hold of you. I have often wondered, what is this feeling? Is it the momentary fulfilment I feel when I'm suddenly needed? Why does this feeling make me feel significant, that all of a sudden I matter. I believe it's rooted in our collective need to trust and be trusted.
Think about the daily decisions you make, aren't they all rooted in how much you trust someone or something. Think about the leaders, managers, teachers, coaches and politicians that have effected your life. I guarantee the effect they had on you was equal to the amount of trust you placed in them. Why did you trust them? You felt they cared and that they took responsibility for an aspect of your life.
Leadership in your family, in your career always starts when you take responsibility first. I have heard it said, that the habits we make in turn make us. I would argue that when we take responsibility it’s our responsibilities that make us.