By Paul Schmitz
Everyone leads. When I began using this phrase in presentations about Public Allies and chose it as the title of my book, it provoked many questions and debates from people outside the organization. Some asked if we really meant everyone. ‘‘Can everyone really lead?’’ they asked. ‘‘Or are you just talking about a certain group of people? Don’t you agree that people have different levels of skills, and that some people just aren’t meant to be in charge? Aren’t there people who don’t want to be in charge?’’
Others questioned whether anything can get done if everyone feels that he or she is in charge: ‘‘Don’t you have a problem with too many people feeling entitled? Do you mean that everyone has a say about everything? How is it possible to get clear direction or consensus if everyone believes that he or she is a leader? Don’t you need better followers, too?’’
I have found a simple and powerful way to answer these critics by reframing the idea of leadership, moving from an emphasis on the noun leader to an emphasis on the verb to lead. At Public Allies, we talk about leadership in terms of an action one takes, not in terms of a position one holds. Leadership is about taking responsibility – both personal and social – for working with others on shared goals. Everyone has some circle of influence where it is possible to take responsibility for leading.
It is also important how one leads, and leadership includes the values one uses to bring people together around shared goals. In other words, the means are as important as the ends. Leadership is not about a position that one is entitled to have; it is about a process in which one takes responsibility to engage. Depending on the goal, group, or task, we may sometimes be leading and sometimes be following.