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What is leadership?

Written by Birgit Thümecke · 3 min read >

In my case, it’s a combination of a strong desire to lead people coupled with a creative urge to (re)invent, shape, design, model, build, innovate – always disrupting. Never resting or worse – ‘comfort zoning’, never reaching a final goal, always questioning, being inquisitive – even nosy at times – and permanently wanting to grow and generate a following by inspiring others. Building my own tribe, so to speak.

Leadership involves a great deal of coaching and guiding, taking responsibility and ownership. Leaders lead people while managers manage things.

Leadership has nothing to do with hierarchy or seniority, titles or degrees. Leadership cannot be acquired at schools or varsities – it is a way of being.

However, it means different things to different people – it has a lot to do with our inherent belief system. The way we have been brought up and our encounters with what we believe was leadership in the early stage of our lives. If, early on, we encounter domineering, manipulating, bullish, forceful and overbearing characters, we tend to associate that with leadership for the rest our lives – not consciously understanding why. For those in this position, leadership just seems so negative, so much so that they would never want to be on the flip side. If we were fortunate enough to have met people who genuinely enjoy taking charge, with a big pair of strong shoulders to lean on while carrying heavy weights – those fabulous individuals that coach us, take ownership, speak up for us -then we think of courage, strength and perseverance and all of a sudden we like that kind of leadership and can easily relate to it. In this case it means protection and opportunity.

My grandmother used to say,

“Birgit, everyone just boils with water”.

So before I follow, I’d rather take the lead myself. Not to say that I have not come across great leaders who I would have gladly followed like my parents and grandparents. None of them ever conformed, they spoke their minds and did it their way. So, does this mean that if you’re equipped with a set of important core values and authenticity nothing can go wrong? Not quite. This usually results in being secluded and viewed as an outsider. My path was always filled with obstacles, supplemented with envy and isolation at times but I grew with every experience, I conquered and I am very grateful for that.

Some say “no envy, no honour”. I think that is completely incorrect. What I know for sure is this: One does not become a leader to win a popularity contest. That is fine with me because I prefer to be respected instead of liked.

But to fully comprehend this you need to know where I came from. I worked my way up from grassroots level. I worked flipping hard, endured two bankruptcies and, although I was not paid any salary in months, I still continued to work. I had to humble myself and just do it, because I was the one that collected outstanding funds. And this is just one layer. So often I fought right in the trenches while making sacrifices. As a result, I get to tell the stories.

Change and progress and the determination to move on (and occasionally fail forward) are essential key success factors for anyone, not just for leaders. And when you have a vision or a calling, that you are so convinced of pursuing, you will for sure not be the most popular person. Why? Because you hold up a mirror to others showing them that there are different ways to go about things, and sometimes they don’t like that…

Really good leadership is when the leader identifies, fast-tracks and grooms talent. In fact, lateral, out-of-the-box thinkers, no clones or ‘mini-me’s, but those who know that they will rock the boat eventually are what you’re looking for. And the real beauty manifests itself even further: leaders will promote those most deserving, even if they’ll become a threat to the leader themselves. I made that happen on many occasions. Under adverse conditions and even when my superior(s) warned me not to promote a certain individual because he or she would become a threat to me or my position. I knew that but and I proceeded anyway. That kept me at the top of my game. I had to stretch myself and reconsider my views and it afforded me the possibility to see things from different angles. And I never once regretted my decision. I love a good challenge and welcome competition. That seems just natural to me. It helps to regulate things either in a healthy and fair way or in a way that was supposed to happen anyhow.

Every time we make a decision, we’re leading. Why not push the envelope a little bit each time, become conscious about the possibilities and the extreme need for good leaders? They are indeed a rare species. But they are human, which means they are not free from mistakes. What the one calls dominance or manipulation the other appreciates as guidance and coaching. It’s just semantics, because those attributes are merely different sides of the same coin. We can actively decide which side we prefer and which one we focus on.

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