Let’s say you’re asked to accept a leadership role. It’s new to you. You haven’t given much thought to being a leader. Yesterday, you were traveling the familiar path of the work you love and enjoy; today you are at a fork in the road and you must choose the way that is unknown and full of the unexpected.
To answer those questions, it might help to think of a time of challenge when you just took leadership, when you saw a need and you saw what made sense. We are surrounded by examples of “accidental leadership.” We all know the famous stories, but we often don’t stop to consider that everyday leadership arises naturally in people just like us. The passerby who rendered aid to an accident victim and organized other bystanders to direct traffic and call for help and keep everyone calm until the police arrived… The young mother volunteering at a school who quietly led teachers and children away from danger when an earthquake rocked their building… The passenger who steered a bus to a safe stop when the driver suddenly had a heart attack… The young man who bravely intervened to stop a bully from hurting a vulnerable classmate… The accountant who risked her job to inform her CEO of fraudulent practices she discovered in a profitable division… In such cases, the leaders did not have much time to anticipate the situations, train for them, run through scenarios of what they might do. Their heads cleared as they saw the situation at hand, and they stepped up. Rising to the occasion is a natural response to life, when insecure thinking doesn’t get in the way of it.
An iconic story of this was a plane crash that happened in Washington, D.C. in the 1970’s. A man named Lenny Skudnick, a plumber, was about to drive over a bridge on his way home when a jet that had just taken off from National (now Reagan) Airport crashed into the Potomac River, right before his eyes. He wheeled his truck off the road to the bank of the river and grabbed rope and PVC pipe and anything that looked useful and began swimming towards the wreckage to save passengers emerging from the plane. It was winter; the river was cold; the surviving passengers could not stay in the water long awaiting help. He did everything he could do, and his determination attracted others who came upon the scene to join him in helping people. In the aftermath, a television reporter came upon him, sitting off by himself, shaking and upset. She said, “Lenny, you’re the hero of the day. You helped to save a lot of people. Why are you so upset?” And he responded, “I-I-I just remembered I don’t know how to swim.”
If someone had asked him, in advance, if he would be able to lead the first rescuers to help people emerging from a crashed plane in a river, would he have said yes? Is this an occasion for which he prepared? When the moment came, however, he didn’t entertain a lot of extraneous thinking about whether he was qualified, or the right person to take the lead, or even physically able to do what needed to be done. He saw the obvious and did the obvious, and did not become frightened until afterwards when he started thinking about it.
Leadership is an exhilarating surge of the human spirit, unfettered by worry, anticipation or fear. It is a capacity shared by all people. We all have our own, unique knowledge that will come to mind when the call to leadership comes. Knowledge alone, though, is no guarantee of leadership: Knowledge is the servant of inspiration but the master of procrastination. If we are tangled in a web of what-if’s” and “buts” and “shoulds” and “can’ts”, knowledge can’t help us much. We can’t sort it out. Everyone remembers studying for a big test and feeling confident in our knowledge, then sitting down in front of the questions and finding our minds in a tailspin, the knowledge we were counting on totally disorganized and obscured by panicky thinking.
Everyone, at the core, is a leader. Whether elected, designated, chosen or accidental, leaders can’t lead when their minds are churning. The expression of leadership is easy and feels ordinary when our minds are at peace.