It's when the chips are down that true leaders rise to the surface. In struggle, confusion, and challenge, real leaders take stock of the situation and lead others through the chaos. For some reason, the others are happy to follow. The substance between the leader and those who voluntarily follow his or her direction is called influence. Influence is the mark of a leader. Without influence, one might have a title, a position, decorations, degrees, authority, and many other things that are designed to bestow power or title or status, but not true leadership.
When analyzed in this manner, it becomes apparent that leaders pop up in inconvenient places within organizations, and that's the point. Leadership isn't always found at the top of organizational charts or on the voting ballot, and sometimes it seems as though it is rarely found in such places. No, more often, leadership is displayed by ordinary people in ordinary positions.
In one of the books that Orrin Woodward and myself are currently writing we will cover the concept of "Leaders Under Managers." Quite often, leaders are trapped in a position "under" people of greater authority or power who possess much less leadership abiltiy. As I survey the pages of history I find countless examples of this. I have often written of Horatio Nelson, England's (and the world's) most famous sea captain. When speaking of Nelson, it is easy to call him an Admiral, which is the position of command in which he died. At that point, even though he was in charge of an entire fleet, he was still subservient to the Chief Lord of the Admiralty back in London. And we must remember that Nelson, throughout most of his career, was in a position under other captains, squadron commanders, commodores, and admirals. In fact, although he was never outrightly insubordinate, Nelson did have to struggle to overcome stodgy senior commanders and take liberties with his orders from time to time in order to post some of his most magnificent achievements.
So if you are going to be a leader, it goes with the territory that you will be held back or potentially frustrated by those in "authority above" you. The first thing to do in such a situation is to realize that it is not only normal, but common. Secondly, you must realize that your day will come, that leaders always rise to the surface, and it will likely just be a matter of time and opportunity before you are able to spread your wings. Thirdly, understand that you can still lead, right where you are, with what you have and in what you've been given to do. This is done by accepting responsibility, taking command of the situations that are within your circle of influence, and striving for excellence in all you do. As you live this way, others will be persuaded to your cause and allow themselves to be influenced by you. As you continue to perform and inspire and enlist others to do so as well, your opportunities will grow. Sometimes your opportunities will grow through normal means, other times they will grow through calamity, but opportunities for a leader always come. The key is to be in motion and be prepared.
The wrong way to handle being a "leader under a manager" is to allow yourself to get frustrated. Don't get angry at the circumstances that hold you back. Resist jealousy and pettiness and bitterness; all cancers that will kill a leader's influence if allowed to fester. Understand that the obstacles in your way actually serve a purpose in and of themselves: they test your leadership abilities and make you stronger. Instead of resentfulness toward those who don't share your vision or ability, foster a spirit of servanthood and help them all you can while you can. If they stand opposed to you as an enemy, pray for them and keep your eye on the ball. As I wrote in an earlier post, your goals should remain set in stone and your plans can be in sand. Adapt to situations and circumstances as necessary, holding the line on your integrity and refusing to sink to your enemies' level. Keep your attention fixated on your vision and cause, all the while strengthening and buidling yourself so that when your opportunities come, you are prepared. Those who waste their time in bitterness or political games with those who would hold them back lose focus on the big picture and sometimes miss their chance.
Understand: Success comes when opportunity and preparedness meet. Leaders can't always control their opportunities, but they can be prepared and ready. And this will only happen if leaders don't waste their time on the obstacles in their way but instead focus on the bigger picture of fulfilling their destiny.
Keep your eye on the ball.
Focus on the bigger picture.
Lead where you are, with what you've got, right now.
And never forget: for real leaders, your chance will come!