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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

A leader is someone who...

Claimer: motherspeak

I had no intention of doing the womanly thing, writing a family diary, when I began this blog. My family has, on occasion, seeped in here because families do and this is true for anyone who has a job outside the home - a family is not a solid mass relegated to the edges of our work lives. I think it's a happy development that people like Robert Scoble, who impishly (and accurately) introduces himself as "Microsoft's most famous blogger" writes one minute about a new product and the next about taking time off to play with his son. Blogging can help us find a bit of balance, if only because we find ourselves writing about it. May the actions follow the words.

This blog was designed to be an all-purpose outlet, a place where I could ramble as I pleased, writing about work and family and dreams and intellectual endeavors and more, including the news when it struck my fancy. It's a place for photos that will benefit from more words than a Flickr title can offer.

I find myself very surprised, therefore, to be posting today about family. More specifically, about Number One Son, Liam, an award he has just won, and how the effort to get it has made us all think hard about the nature of leadership.

Family news: we have a leader, it seems

First, the family news: the award is a wonderful four year scholarship called the "International Leader of Tomorrow", given to a small number of international students to study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Canada in general, and UBC in particular, actively encourages students from outside Canada to apply.

Liam starts in September and will study Chinese and film production. Between classes he will devote himself to wushu, Chinese martial arts. We're excited for him, and proud of him.

He almost didn't apply when he saw that he had to write an essay about why he thinks he might be a leader. I'm not a student council president or head of the debating society, he moaned. We all had to stop and think and discuss: what makes someone a leader?

This is a question that is troubling nations - look at Italy's recent elections and all the discussion in the U.S. about why the Democrats are floundering as they try to come up with a good candidate to move us firmly past the Bush era. Trying to write a student essay on a topic that has entire countries arguing seemed a daunting prospect.

Here are some of the thoughts that were thrown into the debate at our house, a few of which made it into Liam's essay. He spent considerable time as he grappled with his changing notions about leadership. Among other things he remembered how other students watched him recover from a broken back (stress fracture) with a fiberglass corset and no sports for a winter, and go on to learn new backflips and other physical feats that involve overcoming fear.

In the end, we the parents learned a good deal from his efforts to find a definition of leader that he was happy with. He influenced our own thinking, and that, we think, is part of leadership.

True leaders step through PR screens

A leader is not simply someone who seeks out political roles, positions of power, traditional paths to places where a wider audience listens to you. People who go that way exist, and they are often in positions of leadership, but they are not real leaders. A few politicians come to mind. The business of speech-writing and PR spin for politicians comes to mind, for they create a screen between us and people in positions of power, so it is harder to know the person behind the position. We will know a real leader when we see him or her step forcefully through these screens.

Creativity: the leader's elixir

A leader must inspire people and influence them to behave and think differently. To do that, a leader must be creative. Creativity is simply the ability to look at things in a new way, to find solutions to problems old and new. I think some people are probably born more creative than others, based on my own observations of small children, but we can all learn to improve our creative abilities. It takes a certain amount of work and determination, but we all have the ability to become increasingly creative. Leaders take that ability and run with it.

Leader's are risk specialists

You are more likely to be perceived as a leader and therefore to become one if you learn to calculate and then to take risks, and you grow from the effort. Risk-taking is one of the things in life most people find hard: a leader shows us that if we go about risk-taking in the right way we can improve our lives.

A leader listens and learns: the human factor

And a leader must understand people and want to spend time with them and learn more about them. If relationships are important decisions will be influenced, as they should be, by a sixth sense that balances the measurable - technical or political or financial - with the infinitely varied and therefore unmeasurable human factor. This, I think, is where business leaders too often fail. A company that knows its business but whose management has never focused on making it a place where human beings can be happy is missing the mark. An organization whose leader has expertise but who is not at ease telking to an employee and understanding their problems, at their level, will weaken and die.

In the end, being called a leader of tomorrow is a challenge: the gauntlet has been thrown down and Liam will need to pick up the skills and develop the traits that make a real leader. University time and travel are designed to help him do this.

How can we throw down the gauntlet to those leaders we are seeking right now, not tomorrow's but today's? How can we send them the message that management schools and political training grounds are well and good, but even the best of them cannot provide something that comes from inside. A leader must first of all listen to himself, or herself to sound out the weaknesses and fears and inadequacies that trouble us all, then seek the ways to rise above these.

A leader must, first and foremost, set the example.


Blogger Vasta said...

congratulations to liam! ubc is quite a great school, a few of my friends graduated from there recently and they have nothing but praise. every time i've gone to visit, i've been wowed by the beauty of the campus, and plus, it's on the pacific ocean, so there's lots of opportunity for great outdoor activities.

i'm sure he'll have tons of fun, and congratulations again!

3:40 PM  

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