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Taking a leadership role in your own life

WE read a lot about leadership in this day and age. Management texts abound. Training courses proliferate. And I wonder – why now?

Has it always been the case? Surely citizens throughout the ages in our Western culture have been curious about what it means to lead. Or perhaps not. Maybe our culture of ages past did not ask its citizens to question the role of leadership in society, as we seem to do today.

One thing is for certain, we live in exciting times. Most will agree that the rate of change our culture is experiencing is unprecedented. No more jobs for life. Globalisation. The Web. Some might say it’s scary. For others it’s pure opportunity. We have more choice than ever before. But with choice comes responsibility.

Management philosopher Charles Handy calls our time the age of personal sovereignty. In the US, Dan Pink, a former White House aide, is championing a mushrooming movement known as the Free Agent Nation. It represents the millions of people who are deciding to take ownership of their careers, and their lives, in the wake of mass downsizings.

We live in a society that asks, nay, demands us to take responsibility for our own lives. The new world in which we live asks us first to lead ourselves. My belief is that this is why leadership is such a hot topic for our times.

Zoo animals that don’t know any other way of life find it difficult to assimilate into their natural habitat if released. They’ve been brought up in a stable, safe environment where food and shelter is readily available. Their wellbeing is, to a large degree, dictated by a system that they know, or care, little about.

Similarly, on the whole we have been brought up in a system that has shielded us from taking full responsibility for our lives. With the rapid changes occurring in our world, our old societal structures and paradigms are being shattered. Our cages have been unlocked.

And, looking out from the open door of our cage, the world is a big place. Where to go? What to do? How to best live in a world we have previously only glimpsed from a distance?

In effect, we’re asking for leadership into this new world. And because no answer is readily given, we question the effectiveness of our existing paradigms of what leadership actually means.

To me, leadership is firstly about seeing your world as it could become, and then setting out to make your dream a reality. You must know where you’re going, what you personally want to achieve, before you can truly lead others. How many of us can answer that we really know where we want to go, with conviction and honesty?

From the door of our cage we must venture forth. To do otherwise is to go into denial. And anyway, the guy who used to feed you has long gone. Venturing forth is, of course not easy, and involves making mistakes. But we gain experience from our mistakes. Experience makes us wiser. And with wisdom we can shape our world.

Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, suggests we write our epitaph early on, to create a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. What do you want to be remembered for when you die?

Nelson Mandela said: “Your playing small does not serve the world”. How many of us are playing too small a game?

Imagine. What could you possibly achieve in this lifetime if you put your heart and soul into it?

What most needs changing in your world? What would it look like if it were the way it ought to be? How would it feel if you were to achieve it?

It’s tempting to answer these questions with: “I can’t change things”, or “that’s too hard to do anything about.” If we think this way, we stay stuck, blaming someone else for our tragic life not being the way we want it. We’d prefer that our cage had stayed locked, and we didn’t have to contemplate the task of living life as it is meant to be lived. Back into a safe, secure environment, thanks.

The door is open. Your call.

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