Leaders That Take You by Surprise

This week my colleagues and I were grappling with the interesting question of what does leadership look like for ‘non-leaders’?

We had been asked to look at leadership as part of a selection process for an early careers programme and our first reaction was “but these people aren’t yet going to be leaders”. Then we started thinking about how structural authority and true leadership behaviour don’t necessarily have to align and in fact, in the real world, quite often don’t.

You only have to look at recent world events to see examples of this – one perfect one being the Youth Strike for Climate Change founder, Greta Thunberg. Sometimes called a ‘schoolgirl climate change warrior’, she has roused a generation of young people to think and act positively to solve one of the worlds most complex, ‘wicked’ and pressing problems. She started by protesting alone outside the Swedish parliament. She had no group behind her, no leadership position, but has become, through the power of her conviction, her personal strength and courage, a true leader of her peers.

Another fantastic example (and I am hopefully not demonstrating too much gender bias here) is Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan activist for human rights and female access to education. She is still only 21 and yet, she has already won a Nobel Peace Prize (the youngest ever recipient) and brought to world-wide attention the plight of young women and girls in her country and others where restrictive regimes are in place.

Going back to the question my colleagues and I had been asked to consider; thinking of these inspirational young people helped to frame an idea. We decided that leadership when you have no framework or position to draw strength from, becomes a question of ‘the drive to be a leader’, to take responsibility and to move others towards your vision. This also means that you must have a vision in the first place. Both Greta and Malala have clear goals – the former derived from an insight into the existential threat to the planet and the latter from her traumatic and stressful experiences as a child – they also have the drive, courage and passion to ask others to follow them in seeking to achieve those goals. Perhaps we have found the answer (at least in part) to our assessment puzzle. Now we have to get on with our task of helping our client spot these qualities in the young people applying for the programme. And the story of how we do that is still unfolding!