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Go First

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.   — Lao Tzu

First Turning LeavesThis inspiring thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted, and I think, is often true. A leader succeeds best when her followers have adopted her vision as their own; embracing it so fully they don’t even recognize that it came from outside them.

It’s also true, though, that sometimes a leader has to be visible in her willingness to go first, literally to lead—and I am not only referring to “hero leaders” in positions of formal authority. Each of us, from time to time, has the option to go first from the middle of the pack. When all the other leaves are green, one leaf has to say, “Well, it’s time to turn orange now.”

“But,” you may object, “I don’t want to be the first leaf to turn. That leaf is dying!” Yes, it’s dying, and leadership often involves a kind of dying. We have to acknowledge the death of the system or the process or the product or the relationship that until now was the way we knew. We have to trust in the rightness of what’s next. (I’m aware, by the way, that leaves don’t actually have a choice in the matter…but you get my point.)

We go first when we become aware of something that the others aren’t aware of yet, when we get unhooked from something that is still getting in the others’ way, when we love the others enough to take the risk.

Where is your opportunity to go first right now?

  1. Anna Doroshaw
    October 10, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    You describe “modelling the behavior” beautifully, Vicky. That willingness to go first, to step out of the crowd or be alone represents the element of courage that translates to leadership. Sometimes it’s enough just to be willing to say “I contribute to this problem because I haven’t spoken up, changed my own behavior, challenged my/our assumptions. I have opportunities to go first every day by asking myself what my assumptions are in any situation, including the times when I think everything is just where it should be. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong; it must means I’m consciously trying to stay off of autopilot and remain alert.

    • October 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      I LOVE your comment, Anna. Going first by questioning your own assumptions is courageous enough when you think “everything is just where it should be.” Staving off autopilot can be hard work! And it’s even more courageous to question your own assumptions when they are challenged from the outside. When you are caught up in an escalating finger-pointing contest, for example, to interrupt the dynamic by going first and asking “How am I contributing to this dynamic?” That’s leadership.

  2. October 10, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Lovely, Vicky. Leadership as seeing past what we have to let go of, and getting unhooked. Moving out of the status quo. Thank you!

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