Thursday, August 13, 2009

What does the word "leader" mean to you?

If you look up the word leader in the dictionary, you will find the following definition: a person who leads. Furthermore, if you look up the word leadership you will find this definition: capactiy to lead. Based on these definitions, it's no wonder that when I ask my students to define leadership, the responses I get are very limited in nature. Here's a sampling of student responses that I've gathered over the past few months.

1. Someone who has power over someone else.
2. To lead people in what they do.
3. Someone who directs people.
4. You lead people without making them bored. :)

Interestingly, all of these definitions point to "other" people as key components of leadership. Essentially, they believe that individuals become leaders only when they have a specific group of people to lead. Naturally, students look to their teachers as leaders because of the large group of students they teach. They would also point to the "boss" of any company as a leader, again because of the people they manage. You can clearly see that with this hierarchical view of leadership, students very rarely include themselves in the category of "leader" because they're often unaware of the group they are leading.

Obviously, as someone who is passionate about teaching leadership principles to young people, I set out to find a definition of leadership that would encompass much more than the words: capacity to lead. So, I scoured the internet for alternative definitions, in search of that perfect combination of words that would serve to empower my students. Although several quotes caught my attention, a common theme began to surface. The word "influence" was present in many definitions and/or quotes. In fact, John Maxwell, who is considered one of the foremost expert on leadership, said that leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less. As I let this thought marinate in my mind, it was clear that the word influence needed to be included in my definition. So, I combined the Webster's Dictionary definition of leadership with John Maxwell's version and came up with this: capacity to influence. Now, allow me to elaborate.

In the future when I enter a classroom and ask my students to define leadership, I'm sure to get similar responses to those I mentioned previously. After discussing their thoughts regarding leadership, I will share with them my definition, followed by what I feel is a very profound statement. "Based on this definition, you are ALL leaders. The question is, what is the nature of your influence?" Let's face it, every student, whether they are 8 or 18, has someone in their life that they influence. Be it a brother, sister, or friend, SOMEONE is looking to them as a person of influence. Knowing this, they have a choice of whether to be a positive influence (effective leadership) or a negative influence (ineffective leadership). Now the ball is in their court and the choice is theirs. I'm confident that with the right tools they will choose to be effective leaders.



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