if you lead, I will follow

musings on finding our strengths

As a quality, catchphrase, or behavior, the term leadership has been applied to presidents and diplomats while at the same time describing the work students do in high school or college clubs. It’s a qualification we try to collect for college applications, list on resumes and in cover letters, and proudly tout when asked what we’re involved in. I’ve watched more TED Talks than I can count on leadership, and I’m sure there’s an entire bookstore shelf, if not multiple shelves, dedicated to “how to” books and stories of success. And that’s just it—the term always seems to be tied up with success. At least in Western culture, to be a leader is to be successful in one way or another. Leadership is often defined as leading a group or organization, and most of the words listed as synonyms are positions one can hold: director, manager, captain. It is a position of power, a quality that causes people to look up to you.

In that sense, it seems intrinsic to human drive to have leadership tendencies, especially since it is a blanket term for many different characteristics. It’s been applied to those who can speak well and persuade, who gain followers for their beliefs like free food attracts college students. I’ve been told I was good at organizing people, and was thus a natural leader. “Demonstrating leadership qualities” is often a stand-in on applications when we want to show our ability to be empathetic, detail-conscious, and efficient.

Perhaps the many interpretations associated with leadership are what make it such a puzzling term to me; I’ve never quite understood what it was, much less how to achieve it. Yet, it was something that I was doing on a regular basis. I would suddenly find myself in leadership roles not sure exactly how I had worked my way up. Maybe a lack of self-confidence was holding me back from believing I had the skills that made for a good leader, making me shake my head when I was given the title. My roommate once offered the insight that leadership is “something you want without realizing it,” because it’s essentially praise. When you’re labeled with the quality of leadership, you’re being recognized for behaving a certain way and having certain characteristics. That feels good, so perhaps we’re all conditioned to strive for it without knowing exactly what “it” is.

Leadership has become a buzzword for young professionals. The term, regardless of its seemingly simple definition, felt more ambiguous the more it factored into my life. As I picked my roommate’s brain for some insight on leadership to help me work through my thoughts, she mentioned a strengths finder test that she took at a leadership conference last summer. She explained that it broke leadership down into components, and that an individual’s test results would tell them which of those characteristics they exhibited. It was a way of defining leadership as a kind of machine, made up of many moving and intertwining parts.

Her use of the phrase “strengths finder” triggered my memory of a book sitting under one of the piles on my desk at home. StrengthsFinder 2.0 had been given to me over the summer by a coworker, and I remembered her mentioning something about leadership as she encouraged me to read it. It’s a book paired with an online quiz that attempts to help users find out what their strengths are when it comes to leadership abilities. My roommate had in fact taken the quiz that the book was paired with. If the information was being used at conferences, it must have been widely approved, and I regretted that I had let the book get lost in the clutter of my life. I could probably use some direction when it came to leadership, if it was only going to become a more visibly constant part of my life as I entered the professional world.

Part of the StrengthsFinder system involved using the quiz to identify what kinds of characteristics you exhibited in collaborative group settings. Based on those characteristics, you could figure out what kind of leader you were, and how to improve your leadership skills. Identifying qualities like belief, focus, self-assurance, ability to learn, and positivity would help an individual figure out which leadership strength domain they belonged to: executing, influencing, relationship-building, or strategic thinking. The quiz, in qualifying the different aspects of leadership, was trying to do what I had been struggling with. It was searching for a way to explain this summative characteristic that pervades people’s behavior on campuses and in the workplace.

But in representing so many things, “leadership” starts to feel like a hollow term. Could it possibly encompass so many interpersonal qualities, types of people, positions, and passions? And what about all those excluded? The opposite of a leader is a follower, and a leader needs followers. Without them, there wouldn’t be much of a distinction at all, and there wouldn’t be anyone to support the leader’s ideas. A good leader is perceptive, and understands the people they are trying to lead, knowing when to step forward or back down. But what about a good follower? It seems that in the discussion about leaders and their characteristics, we’ve left little room for the people that make leaders possible. If we’ve been conditioned to see leadership as a success, where does that leave those working in the background? Do they have to be defined in opposition to leadership?

Defining a leader and the qualities that make up his or her leadership abilities is not always black and white. The more I scrutinize my own life, the more I begin to see that I can work myself up into a leader, but fall back when I don’t want to take the lead. I’ve never felt like a leader, but perhaps that’s not the point. And possibly, attempting to find a steady explanation for leadership is not the point either. I have to wonder whether the StrengthsFinder quiz—and the many others like it that I assume are out there—is doing any good. If I’m not consciously aware of exactly how I’ve become a leader, will pinpointing my leadership characteristics necessarily change my approach? Leadership can change over time and with different people, so how can it be reflected in quiz results? Answering behavioral questions to determine your “type” of leadership by no means embodies the entire term. It simplifies, but does not necessarily explain. Perhaps I should just accept what I can about the term and continue on my way; it seems to be working so far.