Leadership Lessons: Are you a leader yet?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brett Nishikawa
  • 319th Medical Operations Squadron commander
This Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, marks 50 years since the deaths of three remarkable men: author Aldous Huxley, scholar and theologian C. S. Lewis, and President John F. Kennedy. Each of these men continue to teach us through their lives and their words. They were vastly different men, but they teach us something remarkably similar about when to be a leader.

For years, I made a critical leadership mistake. Truth be told, most days I continue to make the same mistake. It isn't making unwise choices, although it does sometimes lead me to do so. It isn't the abuse of power, but that can and does stem from this mistake. It isn't the all-too-common error of acting when I shouldn't, or not acting when I should. In fact, this mistake frequently lies at the heart of those errors. The mistake is failing to recognize leadership where it exists.

I've failed to recognize leadership in myself. I've also failed to recognize leadership in others. For most of my life I divided the world neatly into "leaders" and "followers" and placed myself squarely in the role of follower. After all, I didn't have a position or a title that said "leader." I didn't have the authority it took to be a leader. I didn't see that leadership doesn't require any of those things. Yes, there are always those who have positions and the titles and the authority. But that's not what I mean by leadership. We've all known leaders who command respect and loyalty, and we've all known so-called leaders who have not led.

What exactly is leadership, then? The leader isn't the one who does all the work. The leader is the one who gets the work done. The leader isn't necessarily the one who delegates. The leader is the one who empowers, motivates, and never abdicates responsibility. The leader isn't the one who manipulates or coerces behavior. The leader is the one who truly believes something and persuades others to believe it genuinely as well. True leadership, then, is an outgrowth of your character - getting someone to see the world the way you do, even if only in a very small way.

So we are all leaders . . . at least, we all have the opportunity to be leaders. Do you have the title of commander, or chief, or "in charge?" You should also be a leader. Do you supervise anyone? You should also be a leader. Do you coach, teach, parent, advise, or mentor? You should also be a leader. Even if you don't - yet - you can still be a leader now.

Have you recognized leadership in yourself yet? Have you ever been the wingman who stopped someone from making a foolish mistake? Kept someone from having too much to drink? Stopped them from trying to drive? Prevented them from getting into a potentially dangerous situation? Have you ever helped someone to see that the breakup, the failed test, the rejection, the loss, or the disappointment was not the end of the world? Have you ever thanked someone and made them feel genuinely appreciated? We all have the opportunity to be leaders.

So what do three men, dead now for half a century, teach us about when exactly to be a leader? Huxley once wrote, "Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him." We all have experiences. Have you made the effort to learn anything from yours?

President Kennedy, in a speech that was to be given the day he was assassinated, wrote, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." Are you learning from your experiences? Are you using what you learn to lead?

You don't need to wait in order to lead. Instead, Lewis warned, "Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each."

We all have opportunities to lead in some way. But those opportunities can be fleeting. Are you a leader yet?