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Dive 42: Are you a “Chosen Leader”?
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When I was a kid, I had a classmate who told me that our teacher literally said, behind my back, that I “didn’t have what it takes to be a leader.”
As a kid, I thought a leader was just someone who stood on stage behind a podium and gave inspiring speeches. You know, the way class presidents do. Or the way real presidents do. Not only did I not know what a good leader looked like, but I also didn’t know what it took to be one. So, a few years later, I was stunned when I was pulled aside and asked,
“Alvin, how would you like to be club president?”
Let me back up a bit…
In the first class on my first day of high school, my teacher, Mr. P, reminded the class that all students needed to do 40 hours of community service before we could graduate in four years. Luckily, he had a plan to create a garden at the back of our school’s grounds. And we could start accruing those hours by helping him plan out the garden. So, I asked my friend who sat next to me whether he’d join me to check it out after school.
He said, “yes.”
At the end of the school day, my friend had second thoughts. Gardening sounds “kind of boring,” he said. So, he bounced. I was shy and didn’t want to go alone into the classroom surrounded by groups of older students I didn’t know. But I also needed those service hours and was too lazy to look elsewhere. So, I sucked it up and walked into the classroom.
Other than Mr. P, no one else was there.
In fact, no one else showed up.
It turns out, Mr. P already designed the garden. In that first meeting, he described it as a way to beautify the school environment by adding greenery in an environmentally friendly way. It was also a way to encourage teachers to hold more classes outdoors.
Mr. P planned to have a day-long event to plant all the trees and native plants. So, a few weeks beforehand, I posted sign-up sheets around the school for students who were interested. Then, I went through each participant’s schedule to see who was available, and at what time during the day.
The entire area was a square parcel of grass surrounded by trees. At each corner, there would be smaller, triangular gardens enclosed by wooden logs in which native plants would grow. In the middle, there would be flat-topped boulders that people can sit on.
I only mention this because I think it’s a fantastic idea. And I wish more schools and teachers would promote outdoor learning. Sitting outside under clear blue skies with the warmth of sunshine, and a cool spring or autumn breeze blowing through your hair—I’d love that any day.
After everything was planted, the flowers and the trees all needed to be watered almost daily for at least one year. Almost no student was interested in that. So, I reached out to my friends to get as much help as I could.
Every week, I held meetings with a group of about 10 students to work out who would tend the garden every day of the upcoming week. We’d talk about new planting initiatives. We’d talk about other environmentally friendly activities we could do. And we’d talk about issues we had.
For example, we started off carrying 20L buckets of water about 300m (650 ft) from the water supply out back to the garden with our scrawny teenage arms. It was even more arduous in the summer when it was 30°C (86°F) with humidity. Eventually, we upgraded to hoses, but they leaked. So, I was always thinking about how we could make our lives easier and reaching out to the team for their thoughts during meetings.
At the start of my second year of high school, and just before one of our after-school meetings, Mr. P pulled me out into the hallway and said,
“So, until now, I’ve been asking the principal directly for funding so we can upgrade our equipment and plant more trees. But we could use more funding from the student council. And the only way we could do that is to register as a club. Every club needs a president. And since you’ve been here since day one, leading initiatives and organizing everything, it only makes sense to ask you first. So, Alvin, how would you like to be club president?”
I said, “yes.” And I meant it.
Now, it’s easy to write this off as a silly high school story. But the core lessons apply regardless of your age.
People often assume leaders get the leadership title, then people follow. But quality leaders earn the leadership role. Good leaders are those others want to follow long before they get titles. They do that by adding value.
For instance, about 8 years into professional software development, I started spending more time working with teammates when they needed help to solve problems. I took the initiative to coordinate software deployments. And I wrote up documentation no one else wanted to write to improve async coordination.
My manager recognized all that. So, one day, he just made it clear he wanted me to lead the way. I was already doing the work of a team leader, so why not?
So, there you go.
If you want to be a leader good enough to be chosen by others, volunteer to do the dirty work no one else wants to do.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of emergent leadership. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Have others ever chosen to follow you? What was that like? What makes you want to follow others? Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.
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Thank you for reading. Enjoy the summer. And I’ll see you in the next one.