Re-imagining Leadership and the Audacity of Kindness

Would you call yourself a leader?

I know I have trouble finding the gumption to describe myself so boldly. When I do talk about myself as a leader, I often subconsciously couch it with, “I’m a leader, but only insofar as…” or I might be more passive in my delivery, saying, “I worked on this project, and a leadership role was given to me.” On a drive back from a site visit, however, I was inspired to rethink the way I understand leadership as it applies to both myself and those around me.

Slogging along I-495 and entrenched in rush hour traffic, I was listening to a TED Radio Hour Podcast on the topic of “Disruptive Leadership.” One of the speakers  they featured in this segment was Drew Dudley, an organizational leadership educator and consultant. In his talk titled, “Have You Changed Someone’s Life Without Realizing It?,” Dudley beckons for us to do a rather radical rethinking of leadership and how it applies to our lives.

In the beginning of his talk, Dudley talks about how we have made leadership into a title that is only attained by doing something huge, something that changes the world. He worries that, “we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do, that we’ve convinced ourselves that those are the only things worth celebrating. And we start to devalue the things that we can do every day.” Dudley then tells the story of how he, through a simple, everyday act of kindness,  fundamentally changed a new university student’s life. Four years after this incident, upon Dudley’s graduation, this same student walked up to him and thanked him for that little gesture that had so powerfully inspired confidence and belonging at her new university. Though he had long forgotten the whole interaction and admitted that he had had no idea who the student was, it was an event that reminded him of the impact we can make through interactions we initially perceive as unexceptional.

In his conclusion, Dudley also reminds us, “as long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership something beyond us, as long as we make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it everyday from ourselves and from each other.”

When you get caught up in the daily grind, it can be hard to see the impact you’re making and it can be harder to keep sight of yourself as a leader. If we do as Dudley compels us to, and understand ourselves as leaders with the responsibility of sowing good, then we can change the world. This new framework also led me to rethink the kinds of criteria that make a leader. We often associate leadership with presidents and Nobel prize winners and famed entrepreneurs, but what about the people who were courageous enough to act with love? What about the people who acted with compassion, integrity, and hope? What about those people who are all around us that inspire us to come in to work or volunteer or simply be happy?

When we re-imagine leadership as something that is accessible to all those who simply inspire good, we all have the potential to be leaders, and that’s an incredibly powerful idea.

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