In the era where entrepreneurship is glamorized by the media, leadership is a trait we all love to debate and discuss. However we rarely stop to understand its true meaning. When you are in a job, everybody wants to think of themselves as a leader, however what makes you good at your job is being a follower, rather than a leader. So let me not jump the gun and start by defining leadership.
What is Leadership
Leadership, in simple terms, is taking responsibility for decisions, and with taking responsibility comes attached a risk. A risk is an opportunity that can yield a positive and well as negative result. That seems like a long definition, so for simplicity’s sake let’s define leadership as responsibility.
We seldom come across a stage in life where we are completely unsure what our next course of action or direction is. This is different from being in a state where you may have multiple options, where you are on crossroads, and you may have to choose the right one between two or three directions. However, when you are stranded in the middle of desert, there are infinite options and you may not be sure what direction to take, and at such a point one may get a feeling of anxiety, not because you are stranded, but for the reason that you are unsure what direction to take. The wrong direction could literally be a matter of wasted time and energy, or even of life or death.
Of course this is just an example. But life is full of such tricky situations, including choosing your career or spouse, important job change or career change decisions, important everyday decisions at home and at work. In such situations, most people would be desperate to find someone to tell them what to do. In situations like these we are ready to accept any piece of wisdom that may come our way. In situations like these a leader emerges, if they are willing to take a decision and move forward.
Some other examples of such a kind of situation could be:
- When you are ill, you are willing to accept anything that a doctor may suggest to you blindly.
- When you are stranded or just arrived to an unknown or new place, you can feel anxious and be willing to accept the help of someone who seems trustworthy.
How We Get Schooled into Obeying Leaders
From early on in life, right from being a toddler, we are taught to be obedient. First our parents or older siblings, then our teachers at school, the class prefects, and later college professors or bosses. We are also taught to accept the decisions published in books, laws set by the government, rules set by our company, supervisor, bosses, police, politicians, etc. By the time we are adults, whether we accept it or not, our mental makeup resembles a bot. Feed the intent and actions will follow, and this is what society wants from us.
It’s Easy to Follow, But Difficult to Lead
A wise man by the name of David Foster Wallace once said, “our mind is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.” When we make decisions, our brain has to carefully weigh the pros and cons, visualizing simulations in our minds to understand the repercussions of those decisions and whatever other solutions we have rejected in its place. In short, our brain has to work a lot; the more important the decision, the harder it has to work.
We already make many small decisions everyday, such as what clothes to wear, what to eat or cook, how to approach conversations or daily work, etc. However, the bigger decisions a leader takes are much more work for the brain, because their decisions also affect those they lead; and they have to do that on a daily basis. Hence, those who have to make too many decisions get decision fatigue.
So leadership is mentally exhausting, and most of us choose to be followers subconsciously. Take for example, we love to take tours that are planned for us, we want take a pre-set meals at a fast food restaurants, we like easy to select packages at salons, spas, car services, mutual funds, insurance, etc. as we don’t like decision making, and want others to do it for us. We even want Google to suggest what we want to search on the internet, or Netflix to suggest what movie to watch.
We are so accustomed to just take a yes or no decision, and not question a customized request. The primary reason is our brain likes to work the least amount possible, and it will try to automate our decision making for us, by fast decision-making constructs like stereotypes, conventions, beliefs, rules, etc.
Our education and corporate culture is completely based on this philosophy of being a servant, and our society rewards you for being a good servant. If you try to be yourself and break social rules you would be considered miscreant, a radical and people around you; including your own family would love to look down upon you.
Leader Have to Take the Tough Road Alone
Today we can safely call people like Elon Musk and Donald Trump successful, based on what they have achieved professionally in their career. However, I clearly remember the time when these men were ridiculed in the media and every casual discussion when they were defined and started to work towards their goals and vision. Leaders like these had to walk the tough path alone, and I doubt they had anyone to consult too. They took the risk, and paid off. They were not afraid of failure. I’m sure if they hadn’t succeeded in their endeavors, they would have tried again, as leaders never give up.
The non-leader don’t even attempt as they are too afraid to fail, thus they eventually turn into followers. You may rise professionally in the corporate world to a CEO, but rarely would these people be called a leader, as they are just followers, since they didn’t take the risk.
Our Need for Leadership at Different Phases of Life
Our society and its participants interact in such a way that at any point of time an individual is under the influence of another or multiple individuals at a given point of time. I have tried to explain this in detail in my article on celestial sociology, where individuals behave like celestial bodies and are under the gravitational (or rather mental) influence of other mentally stronger individuals or ideas.
In a nutshell we are like satellites of a big idea, when we find a bigger idea we move to its orbit and so on and so forth. And to become an idea ourselves, requires a lot of mental effort, which very few individuals may have or rather have the desire to become one.
Absence of Leadership
As I discussed earlier when one has no direction in life, they may feel anxious. A lot of people face this situation, primarily because they lack a purpose or objective. An few examples could be.
- A professional is out of job, and he/she has no options in sight
- A professional is who’s in steady job, major growth prospects or challenge in sight
- A housewife, who’s got everything sorted, but nothing to look forward to
- A youth, who’s got a rich dad, but lacks ambition.
Individuals mentioned above often fall prey to scams and bad habits like that can give instant gratification like shopping, overeating, drinking, blindly following a guru, etc. However, when individuals find happiness in following orders or at their job, they would have effectively relinquished all that make them human.
Can Education Make You Slave
It’s easy to confuse education with intelligence. One can still be an idiot with a master degree. If you glance around, you would find very few leaders who have a master’s degree. The education system doesn’t prepare you to be a thought leader; rather it defines boundaries and laws that one should follow.
The education institutes make sure this education is ingrained in fresh minds at a very early age, so individuals do not question the leaders who have designed this system. And only those who have the intent and will to break these constructs, emerge out to be true leaders in their fields.
How to Become a Leader
To become a leader requires a lot of effort and patience. A leader is a confident person and does not fear failure. They say leaders are born and not made, however I believe everyone is born a leader, it is the society and people around them who make them a follower.
Simply put there are three things for one to become a leader
- A unique (or a borrowed) idea that they unconditionally believe in
- Infinite amount of patience and grit
- A big ambition or desire to succeed
If you look at successful people around you, you will find these qualities in them. All the above-mentioned qualities will get you fired from a job, lead to a depressed job/work life.
Abhishek Sareen is a marketing professional with over 16 years of experience. He started his career as a management consultant and currently works in international business. He has set up businesses like Track & Trail, BrooksBicycles.com and created consumer brands like Montra, Machcity and Roadeo. He’s is a passionate cyclist and participated in several endurance competitive events like MTB Himalaya. His interests are in behavioral psychology, economics and chess. He is a graduate in Computer Science and an MBA in Marketing. He completed his executive education from IIM-A in 2016 focusing on business strategy.