Being President of Toastmasters in Miami Beach, I’ve learned a lot about leadership that I didn’t expect to learn. When I first assumed the Presidency, there were people second-guessing my decisions and looking over my shoulder, figuratively speaking. All of those people have since disappeared or come to praise my efforts.
Being that Toastmasters is a volunteer organization, no one has to listen to me. No one has to honor my requests or look to me for final decisions. People are free to come and go as they please, get in front of the room and say anything they want, and there is no real penalty for going against the grain. Maybe a dirty look or two from a member or a word of what-the-hell-are-you-doing from me, but otherwise… nothing.
Which is a true test of leadership, because I have nothing to hold over anyone’s head.
When you’re the supervisor or boss or owner of a business with people under and reporting to you, they have to listen — at least if they want a paycheck to keep coming. Your employees and subordinates can detest you, talk bad about you in the break room, and bitch about you to their husbands and wives over dinner… and still have to show up at 9 AM the next day and do at least an adequate job. They can’t overtly defy you or ignore your requests or do their own thing without losing their biweekly paycheck.
Every job I’ve ever worked at, there were people who didn’t like the guys or girls in charge, but held onto their jobs all the while (I, for one, wasn’t a fan of some of my part-tome job managers in high school). I know people in employee positions today who are well aware of co-workers who aren’t fond of the check writers.
In the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell shared his experience in being appointed leader of a church group. He couldn’t force anyone to follow, and at first, no one did. John had to examine his own actions and improve his leadership skills to turn things around. Eventually he did that, bringing the group to previously unknown levels of success.
Had John been a boss or supervisor in that situation, he could have fired the few rotten apples in the group, laid off another, held an “I’m the boss!” meeting and scared compliance out of the survivors. And maybe he would have produced positive results. But he would not have been a leader.
There are plenty of bosses and supervisors in companies around the world who are terrible leaders. They don’t inspire action, no one goes above and beyond for them, people are not excited about their work or the environment, and the person in charge has no real followers, just obedient subordinates.
A true leader is a person who inspires action, above and beyond any stated requirements, and doesn’t have to demand it. At work, people do what their bosses say because they have to; we follow leaders because we want to. In volunteer organizations, no one has to do anything. A real leader’s presence is necessary to get things done because someone must make the choice to follow.
Your leadership is not reflected in what you can make people do. It’s shown — or not shown — in how the people who have free will respond to you.
If you want a real-life test run, join a volunteer organization and see who listens to you when they don’t have to.