Ever since I taught navigation, seamanship and leadership skills to the hundreds of international young adults participating in the “Ocean Challenge” summer youth leadership program in Massachusetts in the ’80’s I’ve always felt a disconnect when people refer to the narrow definition of  leadership that implies only those with a senior organizational role or executive title are “leaders.” Leadership is not reserved for those at the top. Leadership is far more than titles and positions. What was powerful about this particular program was the each participant came to know to their bones, that leadership was something they did —or did not do well— at the personal and interpersonal level. Every day.

How else were those 29′ boats going to make it safely through the fog, stormy seas or dark nights safely back to harbor? Because of what I said to them? No way! They had to be leaders and make life and limb decisions each day. The program enabled them to upgrade their understanding of and experience with inter-cultural teams. The small sports-fishing vessels(when you spend 12 hours plus a day in the middle of Massachusetts bay for hours, days and weeks) are as close to a petri dish for personal and team development as one can find. And how well they led their lives on a daily basis, interacted, learned, and developed relationships in such a powerful environment is something the majority of these (then) young folk still value to this day.

Sure we had a fleet commander, senior experienced captains, maintenance crews, donors, directors and more. We had a structure and protocols, safety measures and . And not every person had an organizational top-tier role. But each participant experienced, and at times equisitely, the impact they had on their team/crew, their daily experience and even the program as a whole. They saw how their personal choices, attitudes, habits and more impacted their daily lives—personal and public. The program was intended to cultivate just such new levels of awareness and understanding of personal power and the nature of leadership.

Another perspective of leadership, and revolutionary change particular, is that significant thought leadership in society rarely comes from individuals with high-level status-quo titles. Such individuals are quite simply, too busy managing the status quo to be deeply involved in the really innovative observations and out-of-the-box thinking that results in dramatic, paradigmatic change. What organizational leaders can do however, that peripheral cutting edge thinkers do not have the resources for, is to intentionally implement innovations at the organizational and societal levels.

Leadership as a Function and a Capacity

Now if your organization’s working definition of leadership refers primarily to the definition of leadership’s institutional function, that is, has collapsed to only refer to those in senior management positions, you may be significantly underestimating and underutilizing the powerhouses that are employees. Leadership after all, includes the ability to lead, to guide and to provide direction. Ability, however, does not automatically accompany position, as we all know well, even though often there may be some correlation. So if your organization tends to selectively refer to leadership as something limited to the upper echelons of management, you are communicating to everyone else that leadership is not expected of them. Or worse, that they are not “leadership material.”

This is simply counter to reality. Leadership is integral to everyone’s lives no matter their role within an organization. Leadership isn’t management, it’s something people do in their own lives and in relationship to those around them. Real leadership is a genuinely creative act that takes us into new places—where we have never been before or having newly been there, we come back and guide others on that path too. It is a contributive act that helps teams and partnerships accomplish something new and that improves the outcome for everyone.

What’s more, when you do broaden your functional definition of the term “leadership” in your own organization, putting simple practices into place that support this definition so that not only those with titles or positions of authority are encouraged and supported when they do take appropriate initiative, you many just be able to multiply those many small acts of leadership happening all around you all the time.

When those acts are recognized and value, people are energized and feel encouraged to “do more of that,” and a more engaged “leadership organization” can develop.

The simply act of expanding your organizational concept of leadership can change corporate cultures, disrupt markets, and positively change the trajectory and destiny of an organization.

I’ve seen it happen and it’s more than powerful. It is transformational.

Contact me if you’d like to learn more about creating a vital “leadership organization.”

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