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The UnCollege Blog

3 Ways to Be a Leader

By Nelson David Bassey

For many years society has imposed certain myths about leadership on us, which sadly, we have accepted unquestionably. Many of us have been taught that leadership is about position, roles, job description, politics, greed or manipulation. Some of us have even been lured to believe that leadership is about personality types, or that there is a genetic factor to leadership. But is that really what leadership is about?

In January 2011, as a young college student, I set out to explore and find the true meaning of leadership. I started out by reading lots of books. Many of them emphasized management practices. Some of them introduced complex systems and definitions of terms that left me even more confused. Nonetheless, I kept on learning. What I didn’t know at the time was that leadership doesn’t have to be learnt or sourced through elitist education, expensive seminars and privileged programs. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn experientially as well. I joined clubs, started one, managed teams, pioneered programs, failed terribly and succeeded remarkably too.

After three years of my personal journey in leadership, I came to understand what true leadership is about.

  • It’s not about having or holding a position.
  • It’s not about having connections or high social standing in society.
  • It’s not about being born with a special leadership microchip in your left brain. (Just if you’re wondering, I certainly was not born with one)
  • It’s not even about having charisma or possessing certain personality traits (introversion or extroversion).

I learned that “The real secret about being a leader is finding yourself, discovering your purpose, believing in your abilities and living it every day of your life – thereby growing your value and influence, and impacting the lives of other people in different ways.”

My life exploded. Today, through writing, speaking and training, I help students understand the true meaning of leadership, embrace it wholeheartedly and increase their value and influence through it. Because of what I learned and the change I made in my own life, at age 23 I authored my first book, and have since had the privilege of speaking at conferences, conduct training and workshops for institutions across Malaysia and internationally.

People ask me, “What is leadership?”

Leadership is not a strategy. It is not a role or a responsibility. It is a way of life. “[It] is first an attitude and belief, followed by the ability to stand up and take ownership in walking taller and stronger on a new path or an improved current path.” – Rhae Duttagupta [paraphrased].

The next question is, “How can I become a leader today?”

Well, the answer is – you already are! We all have the seed or conviction of leadership within us. It can either be active, emergent or dormant. So, the right question is “How can I become a great leader?”, “How can I become a leader that will leave a positive impact for generations?”

Here are three (3) ways – not all the ways – of becoming that kind of leader:

  1. Become “Leaderless.”

There are four kinds of people in our society today. There are people who do the right thing without being asked to do so. There are other people who do the right thing after been told once. There are also people who do the right thing after been told twice. And lastly, there are people who will not do anything even if you told them to. These people do not get any reward. The people who get the most rewards in life are the first kind. Which one are you?

True leaders are people who do the right thing without being told to. These are initiative takers. They take initiative to solve problems by asking the right questions (quoted from my book, “The New Generation of Leadership” page 51-52):

“…What can I do for my country today? What can I do for my community today? What can I do for my institution today?”

  1. Create ladders for other people to climb higher.

Less than two weeks ago, I was blessed with a humbling privilege to share stage with Professor Muhammad Yunus (the ‘father of social entrepreneurship and microfinance’), in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I addressed 2,000+ ASEAN youths and social entrepreneurs on leadership and social entrepreneurship. The impact was remarkable, beyond words. However, that would not have been possible without a lady I truly love and respect. I call her “Ms. Chong.” She is the CEO of a non-profit in Malaysia. Ms. Chong got me on what became my biggest platform without any prior request from me. I received a call one bright morning, and was presented with one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I accepted the opportunity which turned out to be a game changer for the Indonesian youths and for me personally.

Just like Ms. Chong, great leaders are people who create ladders for other people to climb towards higher performance, to succeed, to win and to actualize their dreams and potential.

  1. Stand up for people and not for ideas.

From Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. each one of them, like every other great leader you can think of, stood up for people. They didn’t stand up for ideas. They fought for people and not for ideas.

When you are starting a project, creating a product or making decisions in the boardroom, are you doing so for the “idea” sake, to prove that you’re intelligent and smart; or are you doing so thinking about the “people” who will be affected by it? Great leaders stand up for people. You can, too! These are the people who leave an impact for many generations long after they are gone!

In conclusion, my challenge to you is this:

How can you be “leaderless” today?

In what ways can you create a ladder for someone else within your network today?

Who can you stand up for today?

Remember, "There is no off switch on leadership. Every one of us can demonstrate leadership in every role we play, not just at work but everywhere, every day." - David A. O’Brien

So go, be a leader.