Choosing to Lead

One bad workout; lots of leadership lessons

45 minutes into a killer bootcamp workout, sweat dripped from my forehead, my muscles ached.

With the fervor of a nervous first time city council candidate addressing a room of two dozen senior citizens holding turkey roll-ups, the trainer attempted to pump us up to keep going: “how’s everyone doing?” he awkwardly belted out.

The response from the class was equally tepid.

This lame response by us set him off on a tirade as he implored us that we needed to give him energy — that it was, in fact, our responsibility to give him energy so that he could motivate us.

He had one vision for what it a cycle of energy looked like, while the class had a vastly different one.

And what a perfect example I realized — somewhere between sets of burpees and lunges — that this was also a textbook metaphor for the cyclical nature of leadership.

Let’s explore.

The Class Perspective

Those of us working out were holding on to a traditional, hierarchical model of leadership where the one in a place of power and authority — the trainer — is looked to for guidance, answers and direction. We therefore found it incumbent upon him to motivate us enough to give him the energy that he desired. When he failed to do so, we failed to follow his lead.

The Trainer Perspective

Oblivious to the fact that his leadership was not motivating us — think of the CEO isolated in the corner office, unconscious of how their actions impact those lower in the hierarchy — our trainer still expected obsequious responses to his commands. When that failed to work, rather than look inward at his own leadership shortcomings, he instead projected his failure on to those below him.

Lessons for the Class (microleadership)

The class failed to decouple acts of leadership from positions of leadership. While the trainer is, surely, the formal leader of the group, each of us working out could have taken that opportunity to display an act ofmicroleadership — small actions of leadership in service to the greater group. Despite not being properly motivated by the trainer, each and every one of us (microleadership is by definition truly egalitarian) could have stepped up and responded with fervor and passion to motivate fellow classmates. In this way, the pressure and responsibility which appeared to lay on the shoulders of our trainer is actually distributed and delegated to each of us. Rather than a single point of failure, this approach — in the spirit of Kaizen manufacturing — spreads both the responsibility and opportunity to be conscious leaders. It’s an empowering leadership mindset. And all it takes is the self-permission to act.

Lessons for the Trainer (inclusive, servant leadership)

The trainer lacked two key traits of outstanding leaders — self-awareness and the humility to serve others.

His shock that no one responded to his anemic pump-up plea shows that he was too focused on his own needs and actions rather than looking first to serve his class. He focused too much on the “how” — a would-be motivational appeal — instead of the “why” — seeking first to help us understand why a high-energy, enthusiastic class is better for all of us. Articulating this “why” would have enrolled us and engaged us in collaboratively supporting both him and one another.

Further, his response to blame us for the lack of energy reflects his belief in a one way flow of leadership where title and authority drive action. In reality it’s not position, rank or hierarchy that prompt behavior, it’s leading with values, authenticity and humility that motivate people to act.

The Leadership Cycle

Key takeaways from this example:

  1. Leadership is not about dependence or independence, but rather interdependence. We all have far more agency than we realize to be microleaders and to serve one another.
  2. It doesn’t matter if you think you are leading in exactly the “correct” way as you perceive it, if those you seek to lead do not respond to your approach. Your leadership style should serve others; not the opposite.
  3. Even as a “follower” there are always opportunities to step up and lead — even if for a moment. Doing so redirects energy from a one-way flow to a positive, virtuous cycle.
  4. There are always opportunities to reflect on and improve as a leader — even in a sweat-soaked t-shirt.

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