It used to feel imperative to me that I be a leader. I used to think there were people in life that were followers, and people that were leaders, and that it was better to be the latter than the former.
Mostly, I think this vision was bound up in notions of masculinity for me. I associated leadership with a sense of pushing myself into situations, then commanding them, and I thought that if I didn’t do this, it meant I was somehow weak, not a man. I viewed leadership as an occasion for self-assertion, a masking of insecurities that rendered one the kind of person others would follow.
I made attempts to lead in this way, and they never worked out. Pushing myself into a situation or role, I might succeed in getting others to follow me for a while, but what would happen in the end is that my drive itself would sputter out; I would realize I was acting without integrity, and either I would sabotage myself, or I would consciously quit my position or disavow what I had done.
Giving up after a period of trying this, I decided that I was simply a follower, not a leader, and I got into the practice of following the many things that arose to be followed: feelings, impulses, my ideas, the ideas of others, my intuitions. Doing this at length, I wrote books, made physical moves, applied to and was accepted by graduate schools, got jobs, found and proposed to my fiancé. Each of these moves seemed to me to arise with the quality of predestination, and all I did was simply follow the sign: there was a total absence of any pretension to leadership.
In my new state, it has been quite the surprise to me to begin to receive the feedback that I am a leader. More than a few times, people have reached out to me about things I’ve written on this blog and said that I’ve inspired them, that something I’ve written has enabled them to make a move in their lives they were waiting on, but had lacked the courage to make. That is, these people have branded me as the leader whom they followed.
All this has led me to revise my earlier thinking on leadership: I no longer think a leader is someone who asserts themselves in a situation, acting from their own will. Instead, I think a leader is merely another version of a follower, like any of us; the only difference is that the leader is following something others cannot see. As a more blunt way of putting this, leadership is an illusion.
To give a practical example of what I’m talking about, look at some of the great nonviolent leaders throughout history, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Were these people leaders? Of course, to those who followed them. But were they themselves (Dr. King, Gandhi, et al) also simply following something? Again, of course: they were following something so large that others could not see it, a vision of a future to which they fully and nakedly submitted.
So perhaps another way of putting this is that a leader is a special kind of seer, and a believer: they submit to something, first because they can clearly see it, and second because they possess the power to believe in it even when contradicted by present reality. These are no doubt gifts: however, they are the gifts of a humble supplicant, not those of the kind of masculine, adrenaline-oriented leadership that I had formerly categorized as such. A leader is a follower; they are merely following something their followers cannot see, and for those followers, the leader becomes the vessel of grand vision.