Leadership: It Doesn’t Mean You’re the “Boss”

When my younger daughter was about 8 or 9, I remember watching her play with her friends in the park across the street. Her whole focus was on getting everyone involved in whatever game the group was playing, pointing out where they could get into the action, assigning roles, encouraging those who were more shy, and backing up those who were less confident.

On the one hand, I worried that she was too bossy. On the other hand, I was pleased to see her helping others. And at the same time, I was pretty amazed that none of the children seemed to want to tell her to back off! At some point, Glenda (my sister, friend, and HSD mentor) was with me, watching her niece direct this traffic of play and growing. I shared my fears about this “bossy” child and her impact on her future relationships. Glenda just grinned at me and said something I will never forget. “In adults, they call that ‘leadership’.”

That was really the first time that I recognized that leaders can emerge anywhere. I have watched my daughter grow to be a woman, raising a lovely daughter, building a family and a career. She is the exemplar of the belief that you can be a leader, regardless of where you “stand” in a system.

In HSD we define leaders as individuals who set conditions for others to be successful. They recognize that the success of the whole depends on the success of each individual in the group. This definition of leaders carries with it a number of assumptions.

Leaders can see patterns in their world around them.
I have seen people, even those who were not formal leaders in their organizations or communities, who are able to see and name the patterns in interactions, decision making, and communication between and among the members of the group. They are often the individuals who “speak truth to power” as they name those patterns others cannot see or will not name.

Leaders make sense of those patterns in ways that open options for action.
Who is the person in your team or department, who can cut through the confusion and make sense of the challenge that’s before you? The leaders around you are able to look deeply into your challenges and name possible solutions. Sometimes these solutions seem so simple anyone could have thought of them—but they didn’t. Other times the solutions just seem too surprising or “out of the box”, but once you see them, they make perfect sense.

Leaders know how to take mobilize people and resources to get work done.
We all know individuals who have the energy and the connections with others to get work done. They seem to know what needs to be done and how to get that accomplished. They can marshal resources and rally the forces. They understand the importance of quality and use common-sense measures that everyone can understand. They lead the pack, without being the boss. They step in willingly to help and accomplish the goals.

Leaders stand in inquiry, living in a state of perpetual curiosity.
In HSD, we define inquiry specifically as one who can:

  • Turn judgement into curiosity
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions in questions

Individuals who do that don’t just get mad, they figure it out. They don’t stand in judgment with others, they try to understand the behaviors they don’t understand. They try to find shared solutions with people, even when they disagree with them. These individuals recognize that their defensiveness is often more about them than it is about whoever pushed their buttons. Ultimately, they recognize that their assumptions can blind them to answers that are right in front of them, so they try to identify their base assumptions and test them against questions in the system.

I think I always knew that leadership can show up in anyone at any time. But I guess it was my sister pointing to the leadership in my own daughter that made this come alive for me. It changed how I perceived the individuals who don’t just “go with the flow” as they look for a better path for everyone. I hear it differently today when someone describes a person who is never satisfied or who pushes the status quo. I attend to people who speak truth to power In hiring decisions, I listen for these assumptions in their interview responses. I use these assumptions to nurture and mentor others who want to be leaders. I have come to realize that whatever the age, whatever the current job role, whatever the previous experience, whenever I see evidence of these assumptions, I know that person is a leader—even when they aren’t the boss.

You, too, can provide leadership for the things that are important to you. Join us in our next public Adaptive Action Lab, “Lead from Anywhere: Adaptive Action and Leadership,” February 19, 20, 22, 2019. Follow this link to find out more. 

And, be in touch! Let us know where you find leaders, even if it’s in a 9-year-old child.


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