Leadership is an “On Call” Kind of Thing

Every role we perform has its “on stage” moments and its “off stage” moments. Luis Urzua was on stage as leader of the trapped Chilean miners for most of his subterranean sabbatical. Seldom does one stay on stage in one role for so long without a break.

Each role that you or I take on—parent, learner, boss, cheerleader, entertainer, caregiver, cook, or bottlewasher—gets a break after each episode. Parent for a while, read the paper, prepare a meal—each role yields to its (often) logical successor. Some of our roles are supported by natural sources of energy, while others tend to be more draining for lack of natural energy. I have natural energy for learning, but not for selling. Having natural energy is not sufficient for being good at a role, just as not having natural energy does not entail poor performance in a role. Ideally, one role yields to another that requires a different kind of energy, so that our tank may refill: a role that entails interaction yields to one that means solitude, loud yields to quiet, humdrum yields to creative, challenging yields to conforming, or methodicalness yields to spontaneity.

Señor Urzua’s extended performance in the role of leader suggests that he had the natural energy for that role: prevailing calmness and presence of mind, an outgoing nature that enjoys interacting with people, an inventive bent that yields insight for solving problems, sufficient toughness to stand up for what is important, and the discipline to avoid yielding to distractions and indulgences that, in the miners’ case, could have been deadly. These five qualities—calmness, sociability, creativity, toughness, and discipline—we all have to different degrees. My wife is calmer than I, and also tougher, and to that degree has more energy for leadership than do I. That does not mean that I can’t lead—just that leading tires me more than it does her, and I want to get back to my studies (or some other individual endeavor). If we both were stuck 2,000 feet down under along with others, I have no doubt that she would take on more leadership than I, but I’d help.

Leadership, like cooking and reading, can’t go on nonstop, like the Energizer Bunny (who, to appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, will eventually need a break, a battery change, a refill). It needs a break. Leadership needs to take a seat so that other roles may have their day. I define leadership as “taking responsibility for effecting necessary change.” By that definition, clearly change is not incessant, not constant like whitewater. You just can’t do constant change—the result is turmoil—stress for self and others. Leading needs to sit down and let managing or individual activity or just plain R&R have their time on center stage. It helps refill your tank, or charge your battery. And, if your tank is smaller than optimal, the greater the need for exiting stage left or right.

And if you are ever in need of a leader who won’t be able to take break for a long time, hope that you have someone available with a tank the size of Luis’s. Or several with tanks half his size who can take turns.

Within each of us, our leadership “hat” needs to be on call. It needs to be available when needed. For those of us with smaller tanks, that is no excuse for not serving when needed. For those of us with larger tanks for leadership, remember you need to exit the stage from time to time, change hats, refill your tanks, and stay on call for service as needed.

One thought on “Leadership is an “On Call” Kind of Thing

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  1. After serving eight years in one of the few organizations (United States Marine Corps) that indoctrinates and encourages “leadership” from its lowest ranks, I have to say, I’ve enjoyed reading this blog/article. I believe Dr. Howard has highlighted key distinctions of leadership while putting a spin on a brief, but solid explanation of leadership in its active and inactive states.

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