You Don't Have to Wait for Permission to be a Leader

Pete Ross

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A funny thing happened yesterday as I got the train home from work. There were signal failures and the trains were running off of schedule, so the train that I got on was going all the way to my home station (almost an hour away) without stopping, skipping 7 other stations. After a few minutes, I decided I didn’t feel like standing up for almost an hour, so I sat down on the floor (our trains in Australia are nice and clean), crossed my legs and leant against the pole. Within seconds, half the people in the compartment I was in did exactly the same thing. I even overheard a lady say to her friend “well if he can do it, I’m not going to stand the whole time.”

It was like I’d given them permission to do what they really wanted, but were afraid to do.

The media and society in general gets so caught up with what we all think of as “great” leaders. Most of the time, these are the people who just happen to sit at the top, so by definition are considered to be great. That’s really not how it works at all though, is it? When I think about those in really high ranks I’ve dealt with during my time in the military and in business, it’s a mixed bag at best. Some of them I would have followed to the end of the earth because they inspired such great trust. Others I didn’t even want to be around because they disgusted me. Some of them might have been good managers, but very few were what I’d call leaders. I can definitely say that rank in the hierarchy did not equate to ability in leadership.

And that’s because leadership is something different. It doesn’t require rank or title, it requires you to see the way forward and start walking that way to show others that it’s the way forward. In the above case on the train, I just recognised that I wanted to sit down. In the split second of hesitation I had, I realised that everyone else probably wanted to sit down too and they’re just waiting for someone to go first.

So I did.

Don’t get me wrong, taking that first step isn’t easy. It requires courage, because you’re either exposing yourself to embarrassment, social disapproval or something equally frightening. That’s exactly why we admire leaders — because they are people who have the courage to take that first step when everyone else won’t. Always remember that someone like Eisenhower or Patton didn’t start out being the icons of leadership that they are now, they started with a single gesture, just like anyone else. Even the great Captain America didn’t start out with inspirational speeches like in Avengers: Endgame, his first act of leadership was jumping on a grenade as a scrawny weakling when everyone else was trying to save themselves.

I’ve had the opportunity to lead a bunch of times, and each one has emboldened me to do it again in the future. Once was when I was a private during a training exercise in the army. After a whole bunch of the hierarchy “died” during the exercise, I was given a battlefield promotion to platoon commander because I was told by a corporal who had been making his way around to each of us that “if you don’t know who’s in charge, you’re in charge.” I lead for 2 days, and even during a combat exercise. I stayed calm and just did what I thought was logical and right, with decisiveness.

That’s all there really is to leadership. The problem is, when we aspire to leadership or judge whether others are cut out for it, we look to the absolute pinnacle of leadership and compare whether the person has those same traits. That’s incredibly unfair and does everyone involved a disservice. Think about the train example I just gave. The majority of people won’t even do something as small as sit down on the floor when they want to because they are scared of social judgement, yet our standard for a leader is someone like Steve Jobs. The vast majority of good leadership is in the most mundane, every day things, but we expect it to always look like a grand speech in a movie.

Many people aspire to be leaders and in that sense, it’s much like people that want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, just write. That’s all there is to it. If you want to be a leader, start leading. You don’t have to wait to be given a title or permission by someone you deem to be higher in authority. If you spend all your time waiting for permission, you’ll never get it. It doesn’t need to be grandiose either, because life is not a movie and you don’t need to give a speech like William Wallace in Braveheart that leaves everyone ready to charge into battle. In fact, one of the greatest moments of leadership I experienced in the military was a Navy commander reaching out and providing sympathy to me after my wife’s miscarriage, and assuring me that taking time off and being with my family was more important than my job.

That is leadership. He didn’t assume I’d be ok, he made it his business to make sure I was ok and to help if I wasn’t.

Leadership, like anything, starts with the smallest gestures.

There are a hundred decisions to be made every single day that other people will either abrograte responsibility for altogether, or wait to be led by someone more decisive. Many of these are very low stakes. Start there.

  • If a group of you is going out for dinner and no one can decide, say “let’s go get x.” Don’t hedge by saying “how about we…” Be decisive.
  • If you see something that doesn’t work at your job, start a project to fix it. Don’t go asking permission, get busy. People will rarely stand in the way of someone doing something that no one else will put their hand up for.
  • Has something big happened at your job that’s left everyone shell shocked? Start talking to people. Be the trusted person that they can vent to.
  • As Jordan Peterson says “be the guy that can be relied upon at your father’s funeral.”
  • If you’re in a group session at work and a question is asked, be the one that volunteers an answer rather than sitting back and waiting for someone else.
  • If you’re ever in doubt, be the one to go first. Whether that’s saying “good morning”, whether it’s taking the first slice of pizza while everyone is sitting back afraid to, or if it’s being the person to stand up and say “I’m not comfortable with this,” be the one to lead.

If you aspire to be a great leader one day, or just a leader in general, you have to take the first step. The good news is, the first step is always going to be small, like something in the list above. The more you do it, the easier it will get and the more people will begin to look to you for the way forward. Because remember, that’s all that leadership really is, is showing people the way forward and getting them to believe in it. To be terribly cliche, remember the line from Braveheart: “men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor or a CEO, a server at McDonalds or a 4 star general. People are always looking for guidance and leadership — believe in yourself and offer it to them.

What are you going to do to lead the way today?

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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