One of the most common things I hear from leaders working on ways they can be more effective is, “The problem is, the levels above me don’t work in this way. It’s very hard to implement these behaviors when the leaders at the top aren’t behaving this way.”

The kinds of behaviors we tend to be talking about are generally things that create more empowerment and ownership for the individuals on their teams.  Delegating more thoughtfully, coaching team members in order to unleash better thinking and to build on strengths, giving meaningful feedback, and creating accountability. The best leadership requires investments of time and generosity. Yet often people don’t feel like they have enough time even for their own workload and that they’ve had limited experience of this kind of generosity. There is also some short term thinking to overcome. These upfront investments lead to long term payoffs in efficiency, increased talent pools and productivity. But it’s hard to believe this without clear examples of success to follow.

It is important to acknowledge how challenging it is to act in ways that are not being modeled for us. And it is essential that in working with any individual, we understand and appreciate the system they are operating in and how that system impacts their behavior and choices. We know that we are hugely affected by the family we come from, the culture we grow up in, the norms of our schools and institutions. And so I wholeheartedly sympathize with the challenge leaders are naming when they say, “But this isn’t how my leaders behave” or when a client says, “But nobody ever did any of this for me.”  It is hard to be and do what hasn’t or isn’t being done for us. It is hard to act in ways that a system isn’t yet rewarding or even acknowledging in any tangible way. 

And yet. Also. We are capable of this. As Ghandi put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I just learned about a tiny, rural town called Deming in New Mexico. This town is hosting a shelter and welcoming people seeking asylum in our country – pouring out their time, money, and resources to exhausted and terrified families and children coming across the border. To date, 7,000 people have been helped by this small, very poor town of 11,000.  Asylum seekers are being dropped off in their city with no funding to support them, no directives on what to do or how to care for them, no clear knowns on what will happen next. Yet they are setting up centers, using their funds, and volunteers are showing up every day to care for those arriving on their doorstep.

They have extremely limited resources, no strategy, no examples of what success looks like, no system in place to facilitate their efforts, no defined end date. They may not be rewarded in any tangible way beyond the reward of making a difference in the lives of others. They see humans who are suffering and they are reacting. I wonder how many of them in this small, poor town feel that anybody ever did anything like this for them.

We are capable of this.

In our workplaces, we are not met with such extreme suffering and need. But I assure you that you are surrounded by people who would like support, who would like to feel more motivated and to better understand what success looks like. You are surrounded by people who want to grow, to feel a part of something, and who are looking for better, more inspiring leadership.

The questions is, what  kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of person? What impact do you want to have on the people around you? The answers to these questions may well not be modeled and exemplified for you. But they are very likely to be in you. When you are considering how you want to be and how you want to lead, if you don’t see it in the leaders above you or in your HR performance ratings system, then don’t look there. Look at the people around you who you can connect with and make better. Think about what you are learning, the wisdom you are gaining as you process everything that does and doesn’t work around you. Then, trust yourself. React. Be the change you wish to see in the world.