Leaders are storytellers. They create a vision for others through their language, and we often memorialize that language with clothing, tattoos, and colorful graphics. We have so many leaders, past and present, which means there are countless leadership quotes for us to digest. How often do we stop and really interpret what those words means with regards to our leadership? I’ve chosen a quote from five of my favorite leaders of the past to shape a definition of leadership.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Winston Churchill

Leaders are not necessarily winners of popularity contests. Being a leader means you take up a cause for a vision. Churchill’s statement speaks most directly of those who explicitly and perhaps publicly oppose you and what you are leading. There are these obvious opponents, but there is another that should also be considered. This one is important because it can eat away at your fortitude. These opponents seem to be on your side, fighting for the same vision, but they do not like one of two things: you or your vision. Some people will say they want to see the same vision as you, but argue that you are not the right person to hold the flag. Others will say your approach, or its execution, is somehow incorrect.

A related idea from Paul Virilio goes, “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” With the good, necessarily comes the bad. Enemies are thus, forgive me, the leadershipwreck. Leaders often become the symbol for their followers, representative of a combination set of words, actions, values, and standards. It is okay, and understandably responsible, to take a step back to look at the vision when someone hurls a counterargument at you. But if you’re going to make any progress, you need to recognize those who are simply echoes, and those who bring up new points.

“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”

Frederick Douglass

This one is deep. Like I didn’t realize how deep until I started writing about it.

First of all, leadership is not a stepping stone. It’s all the stones combined to get across the body of water you’re trying to cross, whether it’s a river, lake, or ocean. The true value I see in Douglass’ insight is that you cannot compare another’s path to your own. What came easy to someone else may be your biggest challenge; but the ease of sitting in a chair for you may be a demanding chore for another. You must work for what you get, even if it is not equivalent to what someone else received for the same work, less work, or even no work. In this interpretation, a leader should stay focused on their goals, despite what others are getting.

There is, however, an underlying reference to instances void of justice. For some, they can spend a lifetime banging their head against a wall, while others are granted access to the door. In this interpretation, there are times when a leader’s position is fighting for the equality of those who work for all they should get, but never receive it. As a leader, it is in your position and power that you get to stand in the balcony seats and look down at who works but never gets. Look and listen. And look some more, and listen some more. Your organization, whatever it is you lead, is made up of processes and mechanisms, and those are all made by people. Suffice it to say, perfection is not a goal, but leaders should not cease to try to improve the circumstances of those in their care.

“Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

Robert Kennedy

Being a leader is often about bringing the daydream to life. Taking on a leadership position means directing a group into an otherwise unknown reality. That requires doing things, asking questions, and taking risks that have probably never been tried before. To get to the moon, we as a species had to first get to outer space. On April 12, 1961, we did just that.

Leaders need to recognize the audacity of their goals—those that stretch us outside of our comfort zone. In pursuing such goals, the entire team will be pushing (and breaking) the limits of what has been reality. Let structures act more as a framework for creative minds to process information and filter noise as needed; but never let those structures become walls that cannot be broken down or climbed over.

When the leader adopts the mindset that reality will have to change in order to achieve a goal, they set a standard for everyone else. It is not enough, however, to simply adopt the mindset. There are plenty of people who dream of crazy things, but if you can’t communicate the vision to others, you cannot expect anyone to follow you. Focus on your leadership vocabulary, to better put into words what you feel, what you see, and what you expect. Your team is made up of individuals who are each unique. The more extensive this leadership vocabulary is, the better you will be able to match the vision to the uniqueness of your team members. Remember: same dream, just a different delivery.

“I shall not change my course because those who assume to be better than I desire it.”

Victoria Woodhull

This one may seem very similar to the first one by Churchill. The difference here is that you’re specifically dealing with people who think they are better than you, as opposed to just anyone. This is especially important to leadership because you are going to encounter people who are in higher positions of power than you, but you must remember one very critical factor: those are people who serve a position, not people who own you. When you feel you are doing something right, you will inevitably arrive at a person who holds sway with as many, if not more, people than you do. When they look down from their lofty role and request/demand you ‘change course’, you owe it to both your vision and your followers to question that authority.

There’s a caveat to this. You must, must, must check your self-awareness. Far too many people have blindly led droves into the pits of hell because they thought dismissing the establishment was the right choice. In no way do Woodhull’s words give credibility to your cause. If you lack a certain level of self-awareness, you could absolutely be misguided in your mission. Victoria Woodhull, however, had plenty of self-awareness to know what was undertaking in being the first woman to run for President of the United States. As a leader, she recognized how her pursuit would upset the status quo, and engaged it anyway.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King speaks directly to the concept of the comfort zone. As a leader, your resolve will be tested, and you will have no choice in how many times. What you do have a say in, is how you handle those obstacles and persevere. Resilience and ethics are the metrics that the ‘measure of a man’ refers to in his assertion. When we hit some obstacle, we can choose to give up or cheat in order to deal with the situation. Alone, you make that judgment call on your own behalf; as a leader, you form a set of standards for others. In giving up, you teach others that it’s acceptable to just stop in the face of failure, which is wholly different from using that failure to learn, grow, and move forward. When you cheat, you validate that behavior for others when they’re watching, or lose their trust if they find out later.

In Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin outlines three zones of performance: comfort, learning, and panic. When everything is going well, you can push yourself outside of your comfort zone with stretch goals, wherein you allow yourself to learn, all without entering the panic zone. This expands your comfort zone so that challenges must be greater to fall outside of it. However, just as you don’t control the frequency of these challenges, you have no control over the intensity of them either. It is the more intense ones that push us into our panic zone. Stretching your comfort zone is a preparatory step that can mitigate the time you spend in the panic zone. It is in acknowledging, defining, and working at your resilience and ethics that will determine what you do in the panic zone.

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