It happened again yesterday. A friend and I were talking about leadership over lunch when he commented, “What the world needs is more people like Steve Jobs.” I almost gagged on my soup.
It’s a shame that when you ask people to name leaders whom they admire most, many pick people who they have never met and whose lives aren’t even remotely like their own. The answers are often limited to über successful business people, one-of-a-kind innovators, or transformational world-changers. It’s seems clear that these individuals are good leaders, but you (likely) have very little personal experience or connection with them. If the only examples of “true” leaders you can provide are famous people everyone else already knows about, you either lack imagination or leadership experience. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but you’re probably not Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, or Sheryl Sandberg. You’re also not Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Jesus (who often is picked as an example of servant leadership).
Leadership is an aspirational concept. Aspiring to live up to the ideals and example set by others can help strengthen one’s leadership abilities. Having leaders to look up to is a good thing. But fame does not necessarily equate with leadership. Fame is fleeting. The famous leader you look up to today may be the leader you look down on when their fame goes away. Al Dunlap, Ivan Boesky, and Jeffrey Skilling were all-too-admired business gods before they were sent to jail for all-too-human failings.
There are two problems with focusing our attention on famous leaders. Firstly, the exceptional circumstances of the famous leader are so unique to that person’s history and experience that it’s unlikely the lessons and success can be replicated. Second, if your only references for admirable leaders are those on the world-stage, you’ll miss what's right in front of you: the leaders in your own families, neighborhoods and local organizations. Examples of good leaders are everywhere. You don't have to look on the world stage to find them.
When you make your leadership radar more sensitive to local leadership, you won't be able to help noticing all the great leaders around you. Here are a few examples from my hometown, but they just as easily could have come from yours.
A 38-year old man starts up a nonprofit that matches his love of rock music with his desire to serve the poor. His aim is to interrupt poverty by organizing food drives with big-name entertainers who come to town. He had done something similar during his twenties when he quit his law job and traveled around the country conducting food drives at Widespread Panic concerts.
A teacher of special needs students refuses to administer standard state education tests that are designed for “normal” kids. He knows that doing so serves no purpose, and will frustrate or demoralize the kids. The kids’ parents, and much of the community, back him up. He gets fired anyway… but leaves with his integrity intact.
The owner of a successful computer repair business that employs 75 people started the company after attending the local community college. Her hardscrabble upbringing – including a drug-addicted mom and not learning how to read or write until she was 14 – rivals more “famous” leaders. Her business is known for giving generously to local charities.
If you aim to be a better and more influential leader, start looking for similar examples in your own community. For one, you might actually be able to spend time with the local leader. They are much more accessible than world-famous leaders. Do yourself a favor, identify the leaders who are making a difference in your community. Seek them out. Learn from their examples. Be more like them. And enough about Steve Jobs already!