What does an 80 year old grandmother know our perception of leadership?

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Answered by: Todd, An Expert in the Leadership Category
A Google search for “leadership shortage” generates over 2 million links to sites talking about a lack of new leaders in every corner of the world. A recent “Business Finance” article says, “U.S. companies are in the grip of a leadership talent drought.” However, a brief review of the resumes I’ve received over the past four years suggests something different. Nearly every applicant mentions “being a leader,” “aspiring to be a leader,” “seeking a leadership position,” etc. Is there truly a shortage of quality leaders, or simply the inability to broadly accept our perception of leadership?

Most people learn about leadership from those who are commonly accepted as good leaders. The headlines are always featuring some great expert from whom we can extract sacred knowledge. Typically, the promotion is linked to a new book deal or lecture series.

I submit the roots of leadership won’t be found in popular headlines. The core of such talent is embedded deeper in every day life. Sure, it may reveal itself when a person has enormous opportunity and good fortune. But the foundation was built somewhere other than the throne they may now occupy.

My grandmother was a leader. She didn’t own an empire, or manage hundreds of people. She didn’t even change the world very much; although her children and grandchildren have certainly done so. She was raised in Arkansas during the 1920’s. She married my grandfather just after his service in the war, and they began a small business selling surgical supplies. My grandmother kept the books, and managed the garden. She believed in exact numbers, linens dried by wind, and fresh vegetables grown by your own toughened hands. She wanted her offspring to build a life they could be proud of.

She was a protector of good behavior, and fairness. If you strayed outside of these principles; you simply confused her.

She was genuinely impressed with everyone she met. She made you feel like you were special, even if you didn’t know why. You might walk away wondering, “how can this person actually believe I’m that good?” It wasn’t until my adult years that I realized she always knew of my childhood mischief; it simply didn’t matter. She gave me the tools and support to succeed without condition.

She was the most selfless person I have ever met. She believed in working hard and serving others. She gave every ounce of her life to helping those around her, and she did this even when others might take advantage of this service. I took shelter from the confusion outside of her land, and experienced a feeling of love, fairness, kindness and support. For this, I would have done anything. I craved it; needed it.

My grandmother’s selflessness was combined with an almost endless source of energy. She worked harder than anyone, and seemed to always be happy with her life.

My grandmother was not an intentional leader. She was shy and humble, and the term “leader” would have made her uncomfortable. Nevertheless, her impact on others was profound.

Would Jim Collins see my grandmother as a “level five” leader? Would she be celebrated by best selling self-help books, or offered public speaking tours? Likely not. But perhaps that’s the flaw with our common perception of leadership. We think of it in terms of accomplishment, of influence and misguided definitions of success. We seek ways to learn about leadership through our lens of power and possessions. We overlook the subtle, hidden reality that leadership is held inside our values and appreciation of others.

Our common sentiment is focused on influence and achievement, and we spend great amounts of time trying to train others to adopt this paradigm. My grandmother would have eloquently defined this as, “Hogwash!” She would say, “you either got it, or you don’t.” She would humbly smile to herself, and gently say, “If you got it, get on with it. If you don’t, find your place!” And she would walk back to the garden; with her grandchildren following.

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