November 18, 2011
Call me cynical, but I no longer believe that a person becomes a "leader" simply by holding a visible position or finagling a place at the center of attention. Even if the person has a deep voice, good teeth and a full head of hair, we as a group should avoid instantly crying "Save us!" and flocking to that person like nuthatches to a wad of suet.
You see, despite what endless workshop developers would have us believe, leadership is not something everyone can learn. It's not part of a basic skill set, like arithmetic, spelling or doing the hokey-pokey. A true leader is as rare and talented as a ballerina, a mezzo-soprano or a star pitcher.
We need to narrow our definitions and make the role of leadership a little harder to earn and a little more difficult to attain. A leader not only embodies and demonstrates, but also inspires initiative, strength, confidence and good judgment.
Ever try to find one of those people? On a weeknight? In the suburbs? It's not so easy.
But like being a star or athlete, every kid wants to be one. It's not a surprise. Even progressive country day schools don't have children play "Follow the Follower" or "Simon Makes A Suggestion You May Or May Not Take." Students who don't do their homework still want to be the head of the class. Kids who don't know the recipe for ice brag they're going to be "Top Chef" one day. We want to be leaders and we want our offspring to be leaders; I'm sure it's genetic. After all, you rarely hear somebody boast about their family: "We come from a long line of sycophants and vassals."
That's why we give kids mirrors and karaoke machines; we take them to batting practice so they can focus their talents. We take photographs of them in costume or in uniform until they start looking scared and angry, and that happens when they realize they are not No. 1 and that the foam finger of fate is not pointing their way.
Most of us can't make the cuts and we're wounded by them. Some of us take it hard, and become Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver" or, worse, Ann Coulter. If we're healthy, we learn to compensate. We figure out what we can do in a non-professional setting. We read books about dance or we're patrons of the arts; we're avid fans and we coach Little League.
You could say that we lead fewer people shorter distances than we once dreamed, but we're still leaders. I wouldn't wrestle that concept away from you, especially if you're in De Niro mode.
Nevertheless, I fear we're bankrupting the very word. Not everybody who happens to be in front of you is a leader.
This is something I learned after many years of living in England. Let me explain.
In England, people queue up for no reason. In London, an ordinary individual could stand on a street corner, and by simply standing there long enough, cause a queue to form. A person standing on a corner will, by sheer force of inertia, cause another person to come up and stand behind him and then another person would come up behind that person and soon enough there would be a line down Tottenham Court Road in the rain. Only after 15 or 20 minutes would a poor soul murmur, "So terribly sorry to be a bother, but could you remind me what it is we're queuing for?"
And these are the British, remember. They gave us the Magna Carta. They gave us the Knights of the Round Table. The gave us "The Canterbury Tales." Hell, they gave us "The Office." In a time of crisis, they can't be beat. But on an everyday basis, they perfectly illustrate modern life's confusion between queuing up and being led.
The difference between leading and lining-up is not who's ahead of you, but what's around you: It's not merely an accumulation of strangers but a shared a community. Uniting as well as guiding others, a leader is willing to go first — not to reap the best reward but to accept the most responsibility.
And that's what it's all about.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She can be reached through her website at http://www.ginabarreca.com.
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