Too often people spend time trying to define leadership because once defined and therefore compartmentalized and as a result, an ability to be commercialized. These may be useful and important means of bringing leadership to large groups of people, but run the risk of becoming a trap.
We spend more time trying to define and debate leadership rather than “just do it” – “make yourself useful, man!”
Yet there is often a value judgment attached:
“Make yourself useful, man!”…. “…but of WHAT use?”
On a business trip back in 2002, I took a taxi, and I started a conversation with the taxi driver. I was going to Boston for a competitive intelligence program. As we were nearing the Charles river, the taxi driver told me that he was an engineer in India. He came here to the US, and worked in information technology (IT) for a while, but after 9-11 (2001), he got laid off. To support himself he drove a cab.
Now, most would jump into this with a value judgment. “Oh, what a waste! To think that an engineer is now driving a cab.” One would even ask where leadership opportunities may exist for a taxi driver shuttling business travelers and party-goers back-and-forth in the city.
I asked the taxi driver, “what was the most memorable passenger you had?”
He said, “it was the man who came into my cab and then put a gun to my head.” The young man who held the gun was desperate. He was out of work, living with his elderly mother, and about to be evicted from his apartment. He was robbing the taxi driver for rent and food money.
The taxi driver convinced the young man to make another choice: they drove to the cash ATM machine, where the taxi driver withdrew a few hundreds dollars in cash for the man. Then they drove to the Charles river where the man thew the gun into the river. The man promised the taxi driver to pay him back… and he did. They became friends.
This former-engineer-former-IT-professional-turned-taxi-driver made one of the most tangible differences any human being can make: he saved a young man’s life and in turn, probably saved his own life.
You never know how you will be used as an instrument of leadership, and what you’ll be doing when you’re presented the opportunity. Therefore, as long as you look for ways to be “of use”, ignore people who judge your “usefulness” based on their narrow definitions of purpose and usefulness.
You never know how you get to save someone’s life, or your own.
About this post: I participate in several online leadership and executive discussion groups. This is my response to one of the discussion topics. Since I think it may be of interest to my readers, I’m sharing my responses here.