Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it’s the only thing. -Albert Schweitzer
I was co-facilitating a week-long outdoor leadership program in the mountains of Colorado. The program was designed to enhance the abilities of up-and-coming leaders who already were in positions of responsibility within their respective organizations. The group consisted of 20 participants from around the country, ranging from 22 to 35 years old.
On the first day of this program, we introduced a competition that would last throughout the week. At week’s end, we would present an award to the most outstanding participant who exemplified the leadership proficiencies and traits that we’d be teaching. The winner would be decided by the participants and would be presented with an award at the closing activity.
The reason we announced the award on the first day was twofold. First, we wanted to send the message that every day counts when it comes to leadership: including relationships, effort, communication, and self-awareness. We hoped that a little competition would serve as an incentive to bring out the best in everyone. Second, and rather selfishly, we needed volunteers during the week to lead various activities and group discussions. We figured the award might also inspire participants to step up and volunteer. It did.
As expected, the energy within the group was consistently high throughout the week. We had so many participants initiating and volunteering that we had to find special jobs for everyone to do. It was a nice problem to have. These leaders were trying to stand out from the pack.
One participant surprised me, though. Stuart was the exception to the rule. Despite being in a leadership program, never once did he volunteer for anything.
Normally, such a dynamic would concern me. How could someone like Stuart learn to lead by not leading? How would he get anything from the program? And was it fair to the rest of the group for Stuart to sit back while they did all the leading?
To be fair, Stuart wasn’t exactly a slacker. He was always very engaged with the group and the task at hand. If ever someone needed help, it was Stuart who volunteered. He also made an effort to sit with different members from the group during meals throughout the week. Maybe a small thing, but it did catch my eye.
Fast forward to the last day of the program—a day reserved for reflection, celebration, and selecting that one leader for recognition. Participants would not only select the winner, but they also had to come up with the selection process. We had so many quality leaders who really stepped up all week, I expected it to be a tough decision.
Based on past experiences with this program and this particular activity, I knew it could take the group a while to complete this assignment. Normally, I’d have enough time to pull out my novel and find a comfortable spot under a tree to relax and read—but something caught my attention. Off in the distance I could see a couple members of the group walking my way. Hmm, I said to myself, I thought my instructions were as clear as day. What do they need me to explain again?
“How can I help?” I said as they approached.
“No help needed,” said Paul. “We’re done.”
“Now that’s funny,” I replied, knowing that there’s no way a group of twenty could make such a quick decision. “Seriously, what do you need?”
Marlene, the other designated person, said, “Greg, we did what you asked. We selected one person, per your instructions, who best demonstrated the leadership traits and characteristics that we’ve been studying all week.”
“But you barely had time to gather. How could you make a decision so quickly?” I inquired.
“Because it was an easy decision,” replied Paul.
Still not trusting what I was hearing, I asked, “Okay, humor me. Who did you pick?”
In unison, they said, “Stuart.”
“Stuart,” said Marlene.
I shook my head in confusion. They didn’t say what I just heard them say, did they? I was feeling a little irritated now. “Let’s see if I got this right. You selected the one person who never once led during the week as the person who best exemplified the traits and characteristics of a leader? Is that what I’m hearing?”
They both nodded.
“Greg,” cried out Paul, “we chose Stuart because he led from the inside out. He led through his individual connections. He led through his unending support of all our efforts. He led by bringing everyone together for a common cause. And he did this simply by being himself. He is as authentic as they come.”
“Yeah but he never stepped up and led the group,” I reminded them again.
“Not all leaders lead from the front of the line,” said Marlene.
“I know that,” I said, surprised to hear her say something that I would typically say.
They explained that through his authenticity, Stuart became the heartbeat that held the group together—and always without fanfare or recognition. He wasn’t trying to lead; he was just being himself.
I was very impressed with their rationale. They were telling me something I knew but somehow had forgotten.
As I drove home that day, I had to admit that I’d just been schooled by my students. They reminded me that we all can be leaders, regardless of whether we are at the front or the back of the line. Stuart knew who he was and didn’t try to be anything or anyone different. He provided connection, support, and integrity—and he clearly impressed the whole group in the process.
*From Geese’s book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese, by Greg Giesen