What does it mean to be a leader? Sometimes leadership means stepping back and trusting that the other people on the team can get the job done. This is easier said than done. Being a leader doesn’t mean that we are trying to be the center of attention; instead, we want to ensure that the team is successful. For those of us who tend to take charge, we can feel an almost unconscious pull to take care of the team. But if you asked us to step back, it can be uncomfortable, if not impossible. Why? The answer lies where you might least expect it, in our past and our perceptions of self-worth.
Self-worth is an interesting idea. It is what we think makes us valuable. We start creating our perception of self-worth as children. It is often taught to us through the attention and acknowledgment of important people. It can be introduced unintentionally and is a product of our environment. Natural leaders often develop their skills and self-worth at a young age because they needed to be leaders as children. Many of these leaders were put in unfair positions where they had to act older than they were and had responsibilities thrust on them because the people in their lives were not as dependable as they would have liked.
Sometimes, these natural leaders were rewarded for being responsible for the other people in their lives. These children behaved maturely; maybe it was hiding their emotions or caring for siblings, perhaps it was being a peacemaker or keeping quiet. If these children exhibited these attributes, they were rewarded with praise from their parents or other influential adults, enhancing their feelings of self-worth.
In other instances, these natural leaders had to develop their skills to meet their needs, specifically to feel safe in an unsafe environment. They may have learned early on that people, especially adults, were not dependable. So these children needed to learn to care for themselves.
Our self-worth informs us of who we are supposed to be and what other people might expect from us. It might seem that the people in our lives assume that we will lead. We may feel that this tendency to lead is one of our greatest strengths, but it is also a weakness. If we believe that our leadership and dependability make us valuable, what would we be if we were to step back?
Natural leaders are trained to be dependable, but that dependability can come at a cost. As adults, these people have a radar for when a situation could get out of control or when a person might be undependable. These perceptions kick off powerful emotions that were developed as children to help them spring into action. Almost instinctually, they can spot the weakness in a situation and then take charge. This can feel both empowering and frustrating. Empowering because we can get the job done when others can't. Frustrating because we don’t feel like we can depend on other people to get the job done. These perceptions are not necessarily the truth.
The downside of taking charge is that we fail to give other people the freedom to fail or struggle, preventing them from developing confidence and skills. With the best intentions, we may swoop in and take away the responsibilities from someone who seems to be floundering. These actions transmit the message that this person cannot be trusted and is not capable. By leading, we steal from these people, never giving them the opportunity they need to deal with adversity on their terms.
Although you might be the type of leader who steps up and pushes the team forward through your actions, you might be stifling the true potential of your team. To lead, we must learn that our worth does not depend on our ability to take charge but instead lies in our ability to empower others. By stepping back, we can understand that other people are dependable, making us feel less lonely or frustrated.
There is only so much we can accomplish on our own. We can only know and do so much; we genuinely rely on other people to achieve great things. That is why great leaders are those that understand their motivations to act and can step back, even when the situation appears to be out of control. The best leaders know themselves, giving them the ability to give up control and grant their team the freedom to fail and grow.