What Is True Leadership?

Some of the most effective leaders don’t have imposing titles. They can be found in classrooms, fire stations, hospitals and homes across the globe. They have few of the trappings we associate with those in high-ranking positions in business or politics. But they surely influence outcomes—sometimes more profoundly, if more subtly, than formal leaders. When these unsung, informal leaders are around, things often seem to go well. When they’re not, things usually unravel.

True leadership is defined by whom others follow, rather than by station or power. As a result, many of society’s vital leaders work outside of the corner office or the top of the organization chart. We’ve all known people who, without official title, have a quiet, durable influence. Reader’s Digest used to run a series entitled“My Most Unforgettable Character,” in which famous people recounted who had most touched them. More often than not, they identified a teacher, doctor, storekeeper, or parent who had led them to a new place in their lives.

Many years ago, I completed the Hurricane Island Outward Bound survival course with fellow executives. It struck me that many of the most senior business leaders in our group were quickly and instinctively replaced by those with less status, but who possessed the skills and judgment to get us to our destination. Formal leadership positions quickly gave way to competence.

As I brought this lesson home from Outward Bound, I re-read Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. There, I was reacquainted with Leo, a character in Hermann Hesse’s short novel Journey to the East. Seemingly a servant, Leo occupies himself with the menial tasks that sustain “the journey,” as he buoys the rest of the group with his presence and cheer. When he unexpectedly disappears, the group falls apart and—in his absence—so does the journey.

Years later, one of those in the party comes across Leo only to discover that the lowly servant is in fact the head of “The League,” a secret society—whose members included Plato, Mozart, Baudelaire and Don Quixote—that had sponsored the journey. Far from being a servant, Leo is a leader in his own right—unsurprising when seen through this new set of eyes.

I’ve since taken time to consider the Leos in my life and to reflect on my ownReader’s Digest version of most unforgettable characters. Rarely leaders in the formal sense, these people have been some of the most influential in my own life’s journey. To all those who lead modestly through influence, wisdom, unique skills, and the willingness to run toward the fire in times of challenge, we owe our gratitude.

By Joel Peterson