Thursday, October 14, 2010

how to be a leader without really trying...

[the context: i've written this to read to college students attending project nur's leadership conference this weekend from their website: project nur is a distinct and alternative Muslim voice: a civic identity grounded in pluralism and moderate thinking and action. it emphasizes civic action with the goal of forging a cohesive and mutually respectful multicultural community of university students committed to the advancement of human rights, civil rights, social justice, tolerance, understanding, and co-existence.]

i prefaced this talk with a quote from zarina, my middle daughter. when she was 10 or so, we were on our way to school where i was going to talk to her class about ramadan. she asked me, "so when do we find out that we're right?"

i said, "what do you mean?"

she said, "when do we find out that muslims are right and everyone else - like christians and jews and hindus - are wrong? do we find out when we die?"

and i said, "well, everyone is right. it's all the same thing. it's like a language, you can call god, allah, jesus, buddha, krishna and they are all just names for the same thing. all religions are trying to get us to the same place."

so here i am speaking in a muslim context, but i am really speaking to everyone. because we are all in this together.

here goes:

everywhere you look now, business culture is telling you how to be leader. there are books, seminars, cds and dvds all telling you to take charge.

saturday night, my daughter and i walked past a pop-up shop on 23rd st (in new york city) and there were mobiles and signs with affirmations and personal cheers like this:

be an individual
stand up for yourself
go your own way

you know the stuff. you see it all over the place. on posters, printed at the bottom of textbooks.

it occurred to me that the best leaders are the people who become leaders without really trying.

which doesn't mean it's easy. actually, it's really really hard. it's harder than doing every single leadership course and reading every book on it. that's like putting a lot of time into learning how to drive a car without ever knowing what you will drive or where you want to go.

from my experience on the planet, the best leaders are not the ones you imagine. they're not the ones who run the mean girls groups or the bullies in high school. they're not the ones who seem to have tons of friends around them all the time. they're not the ones trying to control anyone at all. a born leader isn't always - in fact, isn't often - a good leader.

real leaders, from my experience, are the people who are dedicated to a cause. who really believe in an idea. who are passionate and committed. so much so that they sometimes seem almost crazy.

in the harvard business school's "primal leadership" handbook, the initial premise - the culmination of their studies, articles and research - is that the "fundamental task of leaders... is to prime good feelings in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance - reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people."

this is interesting both from a prosaic perspective as well as from a spiritual one. for the purpose of this post, a great leader is someone who - by the example of their integrity and dedication - inspires others to something greater, bigger, more important.

for example, if you are obsessed with knitting and you go out of your way to find and create exceptional wool, and in the process, improve the lives of sheep and the people who raise them; you could find yourself an environmental leader.

from a spiritual perspective, if as a muslim, you take the life of the prophet muhammed (p.b.u.h.) - not necessarily the historical life, but the life and stories that we use as an example and a tool to help us negotiate the world - you find a man who is so devoted to the idea of the oneness of God and teaching compassion, honesty and tolerance that others eventually followed him.

it should be obvious here that a leader isn't in it for the money.

not that there's anything wrong with making money - but the power comes from the dedication to something bigger than personal profit - that's what draws people to you.

in my personal experience, i found i've become a leader when i've clearly stated what i believe in and how it makes me feel. people are drawn to that, they respond to it. not because i am trying to stand out, but because we are all humans and we recognize the universal emotions amongst us. when one expresses those feelings honestly and clearly, even to the point of vulnerability, people feel moved.

the most important lesson i learned from advertising came from a neurologist called donald calne. he said, “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” (his book is called, “within reason: rationality and human behavior”)

the next step, once you are a leader, or perhaps when it's thrust upon you - as i found, when i suddenly became executive creative director of a large team at mccann-erickson - is what you do with it.

it seems that the biggest stumbling block for leaders is assertiveness. clearly and simply telling people what to do - whether they support you or sneer at you. most leaders, or people placed in positions of power, have trouble negotiating between over-assertiveness or under-assertiveness. under-assertive people become bullied by the people who they are meant to lead. they try too hard to be liked - they end by lacking direction.

in my case, i went out and bought a book called, "the girl's guide to being the boss (without being a bitch.)" or the chick in charge... i was trying to get a group of hostile people to work together, somewhat unsuccessfully.

and we all know the problem with over-assertive people - you've been avoiding those kids on the playground since you were four or five.

in forbes online recently, there was an interview with a neurobiologist about the brain chemistry of leaders. the interesting find was that as leaders become more successful, their testosterone levels rose, activating their dopamine systems. this means they become less empathetic to others and more likely to have a sense of infallibility.

the challenge for leaders, as they become successful, is arrogance.

we don't need brain scientists to tell us that, just history. or just the newspapers.

again, there's a spiritual side to this. just read lao tzu's "the art of war" - "a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." as muslims, we can take our example from the prophet as well, a great leader is selfless. it's not personal glory, it's the greater good.

bizarrely, as someone who works in advertising, i've always felt that selflessness has to be the starting point in every conversation.

i still try and sell stuff and often stuff of questionable tangible value. but i always try and find the larger story in every product. i try and find how it is part of the greater good. i might be working on a fragrance for calvin klein, skincare for avon or clothing for jennifer lopez, but i always try and approach it by thinking about the message it creates for society. sometimes, it's as simple as feeling better about yourself - and thus being kinder and more peaceful - in a crazy world. other times, it's about social or environmental responsibility.

i started my own advertising agency with the idea that it is possible to use the forces of capitalism for good. that it wasn't always about getting the consumer to love your brand, it was about loving your consumer. so if you were selling a lipstick, you were thinking about women and girls' self-esteem and confidence. if you were selling a pair of jeans to an african-american guy, you were thinking about his role in society and helping him get educated and stay empowered. i got involved with park51 - the lower manhattan muslim community center project - because i felt it was crucial to have an interfaith, non-sectarian space with a muslim starting point.

of course, i wanted it - and we needed it - in my neighborhood.

all that said, in my mind, there's a pitfall to all the conversation about leadership today. especially in the workplace. it's flipside to the '50s and early '60s where people did what they were told and often didn't question it. they worked, got married, had babies, watched them grow up, retired and died. they tended not to switch careers or get divorced or go back to college to re-think. they tended to lack perspective and larger goals.

but today, it's the opposite. it's all opposition. with all the go-your-own-way and take-a-stand theories, it's hard to get the boat moving at all. too many people are overwhelmed with the do-your-own-thing mentality and it takes years for them to figure out what that thing is. they flip-flop. they don't know how to fit into an organization and they don't know how to follow. my mother quoted a native american phrase, "there are too many chiefs and not enough indians."

too many people are trying to be leaders - and for the wrong reasons, more out of a desire for personal glory than a desire to change things for the better for everyone. too many people are leaping up and taking over because they want control, or they think they do, but they're not sure where they're going.

most people would be better leaders if they learned how to be better followers. how to listen more closely to what leaders were saying and choose smarter ones to follow. how to impact leaders - because as a follower, you give the leader his/her power - to stand up for the greater good. if you don't like the message, let the leader know, especially if it's a message that pretends to speak for you. don't let your leaders talk about violence or intolerance.

as a follower, if you believe in your leader, stand up for him or her. blog, twitter, facebook - the internet is a free and fast way to connect to a wide range of people. it's a communication platform. but what's even more useful - show up - attend events. create critical mass. be a body. not just a wired "slack activist."

in the days before the internet, people used to say, "you vote with your feet." or "your wallet." in today's world, that's even more powerful. go there. don't just join the facebook group, boycott (or buy) the brand. march. sit-in. talk to people.

malcolm gladwell wrote in the new yorker about why social media wouldn't have - couldn't have - created the civil rights movement in the u.s. because social media can often win minds, but it can't always win hearts. it can't often drag us away from our laptops and inspire us to take risks in the real world. "social media alone doesn't inspire the kind of high-risk behaviour required for social activism." we need to be more than "slack activists" and make things happen.

what was frustrating for me, as a muslim, was that after sept 11 - and even today - people going on about how muslims don't speak out about the violence and intolerance. i started a not-for-profit, 100 percent human and muslims for peace, especially to create that unified public voice. i don't want to argue - muslims DO speak out - but we need to do it more. and we need to speak out even more about the people who represent us. yes, on blogs and twitters and articles, but also in real life.

so in a sense, yes, every single one of us has a responsibility to be a leader - a thought leader - to talk to everyone we know about what we believe, at home, at work, in social settings. we all have a responsibility to do something that will make the world a better, kinder place because that's why we're here in the first place.

(oh, and i just answered the question - "why are we here?" - as well)

so - back to the beginning - the best leaders are the ones who aren't really trying. they're just trying to be better people.