What’s the difference between being in charge and having genuine authority? What’s the difference between being “the leader” and exercising leadership? If you can answer these questions for yourself and live in light of your answer, you will discover that you have both more capacity and more influence than you probably ever imagined. You will find that you can accomplish more than you may realize, and feel pretty good about it as well! All of which brings to mind Alexander Haig, former U.S. Secretary of State.
Yes, I am dating myself – and perhaps you, dear reader, as well – but whether this is a story you remember well, or one about which you are learning for the first time, it’s a story worth watching for the 63 seconds recorded here:
Mr. Secretary got himself into a world of trouble for those comments, not to mention providing plenty of material for comedians spoofing his misdirected assertion of control, however well-intentioned it may have been. No question, it was certainly a moment when claiming to be the leader instead of exercising genuine leadership led to a less than happy outcome.
In that instance, the question about who’s in charge was a fairly straightforward one – one which could have, and should have, been answered in an equally straightforward way. But because Mr. Haig chose to assert control, rather than demonstrate real leadership, he failed to achieve either, which is so often the case.
Standing at that podium, Haig had the opportunity to demonstrate real authority – to be a person seen as providing trustworthy information about an unfolding crisis, and be a person to whom others could look for guidance. He had the opportunity to exercise genuine leadership: the use of whatever capacities he authentically possessed to help others achieve their goals. But neither demonstrating authority and excercising trustworthy leadership required the assertion of control he made. Think about it, the individual qualities of “being the leader” and “being in charge” may be zero sum, neither authority nor leadership are.
Of course, any of us – at different points in our lives, and for some, virtually every day -? can be a lot like Alexander Haig at that microphone. Faced with a crisis or problem, you can assess your choices based on your need to grab control and power. Or you can ask yourself a far more important question:
“Given the situation in which I find myself, what skills, wisdom or talent can I contribute that will serve others who share this situation?”
That’s a question we can all ask ourselves in pretty much any situation; it invites the exercise of real leadership, regardless of position or office. Imagine how Haig would have addressed the press were that the animating question he brought to the mic. Imagine if you did the same.
In some traditions, this is called “servant leadership”; in others it is called “service leadership” or “agency.” Whatever label you give it, the shift from asking “Who’s in charge?” to asking “What can I contribute?” unlocks amazing capacities in each of us, not mention in others – both those we lead and those we follow, who at times, may even be the exact same people.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.