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What Does it Mean to Lead?

When I step back to really think about it, I’ve been intrigued by the concept of leadership for as long as I can remember. I can vividly recollect asking myself why I wanted to listen to and engage with certain adults (or even other kids for that matter) while others couldn’t come close to grasping my attention. I secretly wondered why select teachers and coaches could get my best efforts while others couldn’t motivate or captivate me in the least. While I couldn’t define it at the time, I knew I would follow these special people anywhere and intuitively understood that doing what they asked of me would somehow prove beneficial. I knew that I wanted to be around certain individuals – they made me feel better about myself and the task or challenge at hand. They genuinely seemed to care about the outcomes that would impact me and my future development. 

Fast forward to present day and the unique opportunity I have to watch my own kids. To study the interactions they have with the people around them. I am forced to ask the similar questions of my youth – what are the common traits that make individuals so captivating, inspiring and worthy of our complete attention and awe? Seeing it from this new and unique perspective has helped to solidify many of the beliefs I have about leadership. 


The Makings of a Great Leader

Certainly, there are hundreds of leadership qualifiers. Different leaders project different qualities at different times. The best can usually recognize that individuals are complex and quickly come to understand what others need to reach their full potential. Better, they also grasp how to differentiate from person to person. It’s interesting that many of the great leaders who have had a profound influence on my perspectives have distinct differences in the ways that they choose to lead. While these differences can be as stark as night and day, they are effective, nonetheless. 

Considering the diverse leadership styles that I have encountered, both personally and from a distance, I have arrived at very few universal truths as it relates to the effectiveness of one particular leadership style over another. All except one. 

So, what is this magic trait? Is it the ability to captivate a room with skillful communication? Excellent, but no. Is it an exceptional intellect that allows for instant processing? Great, but not really. Is it a spirit of perseverance and a spartan-like work ethic? Awesome, but still not there. While all of these are impressive traits that certainly define many great leaders, I would argue that there is one quality that supersedes them all. 

A Calming Presence

Great leaders have the unique ability to remain calm – no matter the circumstance. They are steadfast and in control. Their anxiety does not pervade the organization. The calmness of such leaders silently invites others to remain composed and their presence is instantly soothing. Calm leaders take emotion out of the decision-making process when it is appropriate to do so. Instead, they rely on the data and information that is currently available, common sense and logic to inform their conclusions and assessments. 

Most work environments have become pressure cookers. So much so that research consistently confirms that eight of 10 workers complain of “intense stress” on the job, while close to 60% state that they have considered quitting their job because of the incredible stress that comes with their workload. Calm leaders, those who have learned the skill of self-management and self-regulation, are usually the antidote to such chaos. Their ability to manage self silently gives permission for those they lead to do so as well. 

Low-anxiety leaders tend to focus on small wins and think in small blocks of time. They don’t dwell in the enormity of any situation. Rather, they quickly and calmly determine what is actionable, extracting those elements that can become positive building blocks, creating a flow and synergy that seems to be contagious. Calm leaders simply have a way of finding the focus required to deliver what is needed at any given time – their preparedness simply waiting to collide with an opportunity. When you see them in action (and I hope you do) it is nothing short of inspiring. 

We would be wise to study the model of the calm leaders among us. Theirs is a style that endures and is built to last.