There are great leaders, and there are great people who lead.
I think of a leader as someone who has a specific title. They’ve been placed in a position to lead, therefore they assume the responsibility. They exist within a defined system, and even if they choose to change it, those within the system can retaliate if they are not convinced of the leader’s capability and reasoning.
When I think of leaders, I think of politicians. They have been placed in a pre-determined position of power. They represent a party, and are expected to abide by those ideals if they want the respect and allegiance of others in their party. Many politicians are great leaders: they speak for a cause, they have people that back them, and they oppose alternatives, or lesser solutions.
Some of the most heinous people in history have been great leaders. And for this reason, I feel it necessary to make the distinction between great leaders and great people who lead.
Great people who lead know what they are passionate about. They also know why others may not be passionate about it, because they have empathy. Instead of fighting for what they believe in, they talk about it first. They take the time to research and communicate with people from every side. They reflect. And only then, with a clear head, they fight.
Great people who lead acknowledge failure. They don’t point fingers, even if it isn’t their fault. They learn from said failure, and readjust. They don’t keep people in the dark out of pride or embarrassment.
A great person who leads knows they are at the same level as the people they lead, and just as subject to error. A great person who leads attracts people who understand that this person is not indestructible, majestic, or a god, but is just as human as anyone else.
People rally behind great people who lead, not out of force, but because they trust this person and feel empowered. Great people who lead attract other great people, and without even noticing, those people lead, too.
Sometimes great people who lead are designated to be leaders. They are placed within an existing system. They are assigned people to follow them. But because they are great people, they do not change the systems they are a part of without the consensus and understanding of those around them. If the system is flawed, and the people within it cannot see that, the great person who is a leader will not turn everything around, because this person’s self-purpose is to get those around herself to set the example first. To enact change, the people in the system have to rise to the occasion just as much as the great person who leads.
When President Obama set foot in the White House to instill equality, he couldn’t just stand at a podium and insist that it happen. He promoted it, and he fought for it, and people fought with him. But other parts of the system refused to see parts of his vision through. That’s what defines democracy. The system was already determined, and President Obama accepted his position and place. He promoted his principles, but could only enact change with the right amount of support. Barack Obama is first and foremost a great person who leads.
Tonight he bid his position farewell. But as he has been doing for the past eight years, he shined the spotlight on you, only a little brighter. Now is more a time than ever to exercise responsibility and empowerment. Great people who lead carry on their legacy long after they’ve lost their leadership title. It’s easy because people proudly carry it for them.