The capacity to lead

Leadership comes in many guises, and there are many different styles, but all leaders have one thing in common – they said ‘Yes’ and accepted the leadership role – in spite of the risk of failure. Jeremy Shulman, chief editor of subscriptions and product at InterActive Pro, reminds us that we all have the capacity to lead and encourages us take that leap of faith in ourselves

Leadership is a funny thing. It’s most simply defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as, ‘the office or position of a leader’ but, more than this, it is also – according to the dictionary’s second definition – ‘the capacity to lead’.

I’ve found that there have been many instances in my life and career where leadership has been up for grabs. My managers would ask if anyone wanted to take the lead on a project or head up a new initiative. My teachers would ask if anyone had questions or would like to provide answers to discussion prompts. My wife would ask if I wanted to plan our next family vacation. When these offers are proposed, what do we do more often than not? We decline.

Anyone can be a leader

It’s not that organising a project or answering a question or planning a trip is arduous, though they can sometimes be. Rather, we decline because putting ourselves in a position to lead and perform feels unnatural. It opens us up to criticism and cynicism and the potential for failure. So, though we may hold the office from time-to-time, we don’t always demonstrate or believe in our capacity to lead.

Adam Grant’s examination of leadership can be found in his recently published Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Though it is true that people who lead movements – Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, for example – show a capacity to lead, Grant argues convincingly that most of these individuals did so out of a sense of obligation to people and ideals more than out of an innate desire to dictate the direction of others. Grant’s revelation makes two things immediately clear: leadership is not often sought, and anyone can be a leader.

Accepting the risk of failure

With these ideas in mind, it’s easy to see why we are reluctant to do those things we are called upon to do. It is certainly much easier to sit back and do what we are told rather than act according to our own whims or belief systems when no set plan has been put in place. With so much ambiguity over the right approach or the right answer for those in a position of leadership, failure – at some point – is inevitable.

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But when it comes to leadership and success, a certain degree of failure is also necessary. Though we know Thomas Edison for his many successful inventions, we do not know much at all about his failures. Edison himself is attributed as having said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work” (Furr, 2011) and a bit of research into the subject will certainly uncover some of those 10,000 obscure creations. The point is that failure – and often a lot of failure – is required to achieve success.

So, the next time an invitation to lead (and likely fail) comes your way, take the opportunity that others dismiss. Do the hard work of organising and thinking and debating and directing and be willing to fail – and sometimes you’ll find that everything aligns perfectly and you’ll achieve the success you so desperately want. And, when you do succeed, it will certainly be worth many of those past failures and many of the failures yet to come.

After all, the capacity to lead is dictated by one’s capacity to fail and try again until success is achieved.

About the author

Jeremy Shulman is the chief editor of subscriptions and product at InterActive Pro. He manages the production of educational content for a variety of partners and programmes. Jeremy holds a master’s degree in Education from New York City’s Lehman College. Additionally, he has 10 years of experience as a former high school teacher in the United States, teaching writing, grammar and literature at a top secondary institution in that country. 

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