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  • Michael Barton

What Would Abe Do? An exploration of leadership IRL

I’m still learning what leadership is. I’ve sat down many times to write about it but when I look over what I’ve written, it seems trite, or cliché. I can elucidate all the characteristics of leadership, but I can’t magically make someone a leader. I can tell you anecdotes of great leaders and what they did in the moment, but those moments cannot be repeated. At this point in my exploration of leadership, all traits and anecdotes circle back to one thing - creating change.

We all have our personal list of those we consider great leaders. Some that come to mind for me are Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Billie Jean King, Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin and Eleanor Roosevelt to name a few. Whether they worked in business, politics, sports or social activism, they all ultimately did one thing. They guided the rest of us to a place that most of us could not see, but they could. They led the rest of us to be a little different than we were before. A little better. They changed us.

They changed more than just how we spend our money, or how we vote, or how we use technology, or the entertainment we consume. They led us to soul-level changes. Changes in what our society deems acceptable behavior. Changes in political and social systems. Changes in the way we speak to one another. They led us to change our beliefs, our values, our understanding, our relationships and our expectations.

So what do these larger-than-life figures have to do with you leading your team or your business effectively? These were great leaders who happened to step up to a historical challenge at a pivotal moment in our collective consciousness. I’m never going to be the next Abraham Lincoln or Ida B. Wells. I'm never going to be confronted with keeping the country together. You probably won’t either. What do these legends have to do with us folk just trying to make the right decisions for today?

We needed them big to get it. We can study and observe the actions of these historic figures because their leadership played out on a very large, very public stage. Their examples of leadership are so huge and so well-documented, that even those of us with the blurriest vision of our place in the world can see it. Even those of us who are not thinking about how to strengthen our leadership muscles, or how we impact others, can look at these giants of leadership and "get it". They are our archetypes of leadership, the Jungian Ancestors, and they are remembered because their stories were so big. Our stories may not be as big, but that does not make our leadership any less impactful or important.

I have a bone to pick with a lot of the new-age business leaders and self-help gurus. They are constantly talking about finding our purpose in life, or knowing why God put us here. Most of these teachers talk about getting clear about how you’re going to change the world, or how you’re going to lead a movement. Can we please just turn down the grandiosity a little.

Leadership is not always about changing the world. Sometimes it’s about changing your circle of friends, your family, or your employees. Sometimes it's about creating a supportive, creative and rewarding work environment for your people. Sometimes it's about coaching and mentoring your people until they outgrow their job and become great leaders on their own. Sometimes it's about setting an example for the kid who just joined the company that you don't even realize is watching.

One of the greatest leaders I’ve had the pleasure to work for in my career was Linnet Deily, someone you’ve likely never heard of. She was CEO of the bank in Texas where I worked right out of college, and she was the first leader I remember admiring and wanting to emulate. I spoke directly with her only a few times, but that was enough for her to impact one of her junior employees. Her leadership was clear and it changed the way I now approach every job I take. She taught me to hold the work as sacred and ignore the distractions, to show everyone respect, that no single person is responsible for a company’s success, to let your people see who you really are, to be an expert at your job, and to expect the same from everyone around you. She was not rebuilding a nation, she was just managing a bank. But she changed me. If that was her purpose, then well done.

Look at the WAY these superheroes of leadership did what they did and don't get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they did. That was just so that they could get our attention and we could get the lesson. Look for the IRL leaders you respect in your world. There are probably some around you every day. How are they doing it? What are the common threads of their behavior? What is the change they are showing you? What are they doing that you already do? Well done you. Build on that.

Your Board needs you to lead. Your peers need you to lead. Your kids need you to see you leading. If that is your purpose, then well done. Let’s get over this idea that we’re all going to be Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King, Jr., and get on with the rewarding and impactful job of leading in real life. There’s much work to do here. Take the lead.

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