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no one cares you can lead

26 Jul

College was all about indulgences. You liked flip flops in high school? Guess what, you were going to wear them everyday, even in 40 degree weather, in college. You played a bit of soccer in your youth? Well now you were going to lift every rock and rec room in college to find an opportunity kick the ball around–indoor, outdoor, intramural, co-ed, whatever. College let you indulge, and indulge I did.


I was that guy with a table in the quad. I chased you around campus with a clipboard on Cambodian human rights. I wrote very self-important columns in the school newspaper on the plight of undocumented workers (please don’t Google it). I challenged the College Republicans to debates every other week. And, of course, I decided to start the first political club on-campus. Politics was my flip-flops.


It was frustratingly difficult to get the school to care about my club. The school was no hotbed of political debate, so most students probably saw me as a younger version of the batshit-crazy Sociology professor who believed Republicans were going to ban NPR (it was a much crazier-sounding notion back then). But I never half-did anything, and I am pretty proud of that. The volume and sound quality of my pursuit was, in my mind, never in question. I believed that if I stumped on my soapbox with gusto and persuasion I could lead like-minded folk to do great things. That’s what MLK and JFK and all those Important-Initials People had taught me. You lead by convincing people that you are the best person to help get them where they want. You become their cheerleader/enabler/sergeant.




Thinking this way I spent hours talking to students, writing and sending emails, setting up events, all to bring them into what I had created for all of us. I knew there was a demand for it; I had heard of it in casual conversations: people wanted to be more politically involved, do community service, learn about ballot measures, and bring social activists to speak at the school. They wanted all of that. So why was no one responding to my emails?


One day, after having had my third bowl of cereal for the day, and mulling over my failed efforts to lead a-people, I decided to give up. Forget it. I’m done. I didn’t talk to anyone about the club that entire week. It was over. I retired my soapbox. I would do my own thing, carve and follow my own path. I had organized a trip to help beautify the park of a Naval base-turned housing project community that Saturday, and I planned to honor that commitment as a person, not a representative or leader of anything.


I went to the dining hall to get my breakfast on before I did the work that day. A couple of friends joined me and we started talking about our weekend plans. I told them about my community service stint, and offered them a non-committal invitation to join. “Totally.” What? “Sure, we’ll go.” I was shocked, but obviously elated. I didn’t stump at all, but here they were, signing up to be a part of something I had tried so hard to create. That’s not how this it’s supposed to work!


After that revelation I changed my modus operandi. Instead of bombarding classmates with persuasive tactics, I just did. I was the first one to volunteer; I booked the speaker first, recruited the audience second; I walked over the coals in front of everyone and then assured them it would be OK. From the beginning I was doing it all wrong. I was trying to sell everyone a vision, when I could’ve been much more convincing by actually trying to bring that vision to life. It seems like today’s leaders skip this step. The notion that a title or a post entitles a leader to lead is silly. Does that sort of rationale work for painters or swimmers or any other skilled folk?


Instead of talking about leadership, a leader must be the vanguard, the one who is the example she expects everyone else to follow. With all this talk of management, and guidelines, and best practices, we’ve lost what actually matters: that leaders lead. They earn the respect of others by being bold and risk-takers. If you want people to take you seriously, be the first one to jump. If they wont follow you, they will at least respect you. And that’s where it starts.



Leadership and Architecture

23 Mar

A building like the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família influences the mood and character of the city it inhabits. Much like the Temple, a leader sets the mood and culture of an organization. The frenetic leaders breeds a darting team; the quiet and convincing leaders fosters a steady and confident group.


In a Harvard Business Review article, Luca Baiguini outlines some other leadership lessons to take away from architecture, namely the author of the Temple, Antoni Gaudi:


He focused on details and on the big picture. Gaudì dedicated himself, during the forty years he spent conceiving and constructing the Sagrada Família, both to crafting a larger vision (the atmosphere of the basilica, and the meaning to be conveyed by the elements in it) and, to an almost maniacal level, to its construction and the creation of iconographic details. We could say that he continuously switched his attention from the micro details to the macro vision.


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