I was facilitating a weeklong outdoor leadership program up in the mountains of Colorado. This particular program was designed to enhance the leadership abilities of people who already were in positions of responsibility…be they managerial, consulting, training, or teaching.  The group consisted of twelve participants from around the country, ranging in age from twenty-two to thirty-five years.

As you might imagine with such a young group of leaders, the energy level was constantly high, as was the desire to learn and try new things. There was never a shortage of volunteers to lead the group on a given activity, project, or on any of the various assignments throughout the week.  But that didn’t surprise me either given that we had twelve leaders in the group.  In fact, it often became a competition amongst them to see who would be the first to seize the next opportunity to lead.

What did surprise me, however, was the behavior of one particular participant named Stuart.  If ever there was an exception to the rule, he was it. Never once did Stuart volunteer to lead the group throughout the week.  He never even made an attempt.  Not once.

Now normally such a dynamic would concern me.  After all, how could someone like Stuart learn to lead by not leading?  How could he truly walk away from this program feeling as if he had gotten anything out of it if all of his efforts took place as a group member instead of as a group leader?  And was it fair to the rest of the group to have to absorb his leadership opportunities for him?

Yet it is important to note that although Stuart may not have led per se, he wasn’t exactly a slacker either. In truth, Stuart was always very engaged with the group and the task at hand.  If ever someone needed help, it was Stuart who volunteered, ready and willing to assist. And what’s more, he even made it a point to connect on an individual basis with every member of the group throughout the week.

It was now the last day of the program–a day reserved for reflection, celebration, and recognition. As a final activity, I asked the participants to select one member from the group who best exemplified the traits and characteristics of a true leader throughout the program. Given the caliber of leaders from this group, this was not going to be an easy decision. It was the recognition everyone wanted and most felt they deserved. Nevertheless, they could only select one leader from the group and they had to do it within one hour.

Over the years of facilitating this program, I’ve seen this particular activity take anywhere from forty-five minutes to two-hours, depending on the group, how many strong egos there were, and how much time I was willing to give them.  But what I had never seen before, until this day, was a unanimous decision made in less than five minutes. And what astonished me even more was hearing them simultaneously shout out the name Stuart. That’s right, Stuart. They had selected the one person who never once led during the program as the person who most exemplified the traits and characteristics of a true leader. Go figure!

When I asked the group to explain their rationale for such a quick, unanimous, and surprising decision, they collectively told me that they choose Stuart because of how he showed up on a moment-to-moment basis as a person, with the group, and on the task or activity at hand.

“Yeah but he lever led,” I said.

“Not all leaders lead from the front of the line,” one of them said.

“I know that,” I said, surprised to hear something I would typically say.

They went on to explain that through his authenticity, he became the webbing that held the group together–and he always did it without fanfare or recognition.

Wow, I thought to myself, I missed the mark on this one.

As I drove home that day, I had to admit that I just got schooled by my own students. Just when I thought I had a grasp on what leadership was and wasn’t, I found out my perspective was too narrow.

Here’s what I learned that day from Stuart and the group:

1)      Leadership has more to do with who you are as a person and how you show up with others than it does with having a title or a particular position in the company.

2)      Stuart knew who he was and didn’t try to be anything different. He wasn’t about impressing others or doing things to earn favor. He was comfortable in his own skin. Leaders need to be the same way.

3)      We can’t be one type of person at home and another at work. Rather, we need to define who we are and be that way in ALL of our relationships. That is what authenticity is all about.



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