Few of us would question our ability to know when we are in charge and when we aren’t.
Yet there are subtleties here that are often missed.
What got me thinking of this was yet another invitation to like a business I had never heard of on Facebook. The lemming move would've been to say, “Sure I'll like your business!” It’s just a click. It only takes a fraction of a second.
…but it’s a lemming move to blindly endorse something I know nothing about. If I do it, I'm being irresponsible in terms of my personal and professional brand …and my integrity. These things are uncompromising.
The question at hand is indicative of a deeper problem that plagues many of us. To consciously endorse something that I believe in, that aligns with my purpose and intentions— that click is an act of leadership, however subtle and inconsequential. The same click, engaged in blindly, without thought, is a lemming move. The action is exactly the same, and most likely the consequences are too. It’s a small thing, unnoticeable to nearly everyone, and yet it is symbolic of something more important. Questioning a simple act like this leads one to ponder one’s deeper values.
What is it that I stand for?
Is this small act a lemming move, or do I still want to click the button after considering how it fits into the bigger picture?
So how can you tell if you're really leading the charge or simply following the crowd? Oftentimes people are surprisingly unable to tell the difference.
Sometimes when we THINK we’re leading, we’re really behaving like lemmings.
By this I mean blindly, unquestioningly following a direction set by someone else without thinking things through for ourselves. We do not question or critique proposed actions before taking them.
For example, when you are "in charge"of something and take an action based entirely on the urging of others, particularly when it runs contrary to your own research and gut instinct, this is lemming activity.
You may be technically a "leader" on paper, but you are NOT leading.
This is not to say that a good leader doesn't readily accept the guidance of others, or that autocratic leadership is necessarily a good thing. (On the contrary, attempting to lead without listening is a fatal flaw that has brought down a lot of otherwise brilliant people.)
Yet I maintain that it's important for a leader, a true leader, to reconcile his cognitive dissonance before taking action— to weigh the counsel given and then choose to step up, take action, and own the consequences.
If I am “in charge” and I don’t really believe in the organization’s vision, how can I possibly inspire others to execute it? Likewise, if I fail to take responsibility for my actions (and those of others following my lead), I won’t be able to build the kind of trust that gets people to do the right thing when nobody else is looking.
Leaders actively choose their direction, and that includes the choice to follow another non-lemming's lead when appropriate.
So what if you are not "anointed" to lead? Perhaps the situation limits your choices. What then?
Let us imagine a group of proverbial lemmings, barreling headlong toward the edge of a cliff …the metaphorical equivalent of a group of engineers implementing an outdated (but fully funded) technical solution that will wreak havoc for years to come.
Suddenly one in the middle of the pack has an epiphany. (Visualize lightbulb over lemming’s head.)
He doesn’t like where this is going. He has heard stories of similar occurrences leading lemmings like him to their doom. This is BAD… but he is not at the front of the pack.
Leadership is NOT in his job description.
Surely if he speaks up, he will be shunned with all of the icy, cold brutality that his lemming peers can muster. (Brrrr….)
He turns left and due to his bold, risky action, becomes a leader in his own right as a group of the lemmings peels off with him and avoids the cliff all together.
WIN! (Visualize lemming happy dance.)
… Worst case, he alone avoids the cliff and eventually publishes his best-selling memoir titled, “The Lonely Lemming: A Tale of Nonconformity.” ...Let's not take that tangent right now though.
Even if his action is less drastic and he simply shifts his direction ever so slightly, the effects of such a nudge might ripple through the pack and make a difference for some or all of them. The point is that with some subtlety and tact it can be possible to effectively lead from the middle. There’s less glory, to be sure, but if you are truly invested in the fate of the pack, it can be possible to nudge the system ever so slightly and make a difference… even if nobody ever realizes that it all started with you.
Of course, few of the day-to-day situations we face in the modern workplace are as dramatic as a whole bunch of furry little mammals sprinting blindly toward their doom. Certainly my little Facebook click is of little consequence, but it does beg the question,
Am I leading with purpose, following with integrity (choosing to follow because the direction someone else has set is appropriate)… or being a proverbial lemming?
“Lemming behavior,” in general, does not require integrity.
Anyone can blindly step in line to follow a charismatic leader or be swept along by the whims of the crowd. It's easy. Nobody gives you grief about it. You fit in...
But to dare to think for oneself, and to inspire others in generative ways… to be a leader among lemmings, requires both courage and character. (Cue dramatic music.)
So what's your choice in this moment, and in every other moment?
It just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet! (It still makes for a fun metaphor though.)
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