When we think about leadership, it’s the great leaders who come to mind first: the ones who rallied a whole nation to fight for political independence or started a civil rights movement that transformed society. With figures like these in mind, we might think leadership is mostly meant for the great moments in history, and so it’s surely beyond both the talent and the calling we’re likely to find in our own lives.
This is not so. Great leadership is the exception, not the model, because it usually depends on a fortuitous convergence of timing and talent. Even great leaders are not as likely to be people who set out to make a great change as they are to be people who simply found themselves in a situation that called for a response—and then answered that call.
In fact, if there’s one thing that most great leaders have in common, it’s that they began their great campaign not as a result of calculated forethought, but by being thrown into a situation that cried out for justice. You can think of Gandhi or Moses or Martin Luther King: it’s not their great ambition that made them leaders, but their response to the circumstances in which they found themselves.
So, try a shift in focus. Instead of thinking about leadership as greatness imposed upon circumstances, think of it from the other direction: as the needed response to a situation. It is true that now and then, here and there, what the world needs is great leadership. But we need good leadership all the time and everywhere.
What is a leader? It’s someone who sees a need for change and accepts the responsibility for bringing it about. This definition holds true at all levels and in all situations. Good leadership can be used to facilitate any kind of transformation, sweeping or focused.
So not only are great ambition and great aspirations not required for leadership—they can actually be a hindrance. Good leaders are people whose response is calibrated to the call they hear, and not to their own ego. They’re people who are willing to adjust their actions and methods according to the results they see and to feedback from others, allowing these factors to correct whatever course they have begun to chart.
In the end, the true leader’s focus on responding to a call—instead of trying to impose his or her own brand of greatness on the world—leads to unity instead of polarization.
You can be the leader your community needs, without having to be the kind of leader that M.L.K. was. Respond to the need before you.
Have you seen a surprising example of good leadership? Please tell us about it.