So, You Wanna Be a Leader?

Chicago city train in train station

Do you remember being a kid? For some of you, it wasn’t long ago. For others, like me, it’s been a while. Maybe even several decades. But one thing I clearly remember is wanting to be the best, the highest ranked, the most senior, etc. I wanted to be the best baseball player in little league. The fastest, most decorated swimmer. The smartest kid in my class. The one who made it to the end of the year and won the award for perfect attendance.

I’m not entirely sure why I was that way, but I was. In part, I thought that being the best, being the top, being the highest ranking would somehow make me a leader. And I thought leaders were cool. They got more toys. They rode cooler horses. They got the girls. They could do what they wanted. They didn’t have to take a nap or clean their room or take out the trash or cut the grass or wash the car or polish the tall brass candlesticks that my dad brought back from Turkey.

You see, I thought being a leader was telling others what to do. I thought being a leader was having perks. I thought being a leader was receiving accolades and money and praise and awards and candy and toys. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a leader.

As I got older, I realized my dad was an officer and that there were ranks. I learned that a Captain could “boss around” a corporal. I learned that a corporal brought my dad coffee whenever he wanted. I learned that my t-ball coach could tell us what to do. He was the coach AND an adult. We were players AND kids. I learned that the principal of my school got to determine when we had fire drills and that my 2nd grade teacher could change the date of our spelling test. I learned that my mom was really smart which influenced the university administration to bend the rules and allow her to take intermediate and advanced accounting at the same time so she could graduate before we moved from Guam back to the states.

Please allow me to be clear. The vast majority of the “leaders” I was surrounded by as a kid were truly great, including my parents. But as a kid, I had an immature perspective of leadership. I was young, selfish, and limited in my experience. I thought leaders “got stuff.”

But as the years rolled on, I was blessed to have men and women (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, teachers, coaches, pastors, and strangers) who poured into my life. They were patient and persistent. They were gentle and effective. They answered questions and dealt with me at the point I was at the time. They molded and shaped me. They didn’t expect a precocious 16 year old to have the wisdom of a 30 year old. They didn’t expect an arrogant 12-year old to have the maturity of a 40-year old.

And what happened, over time, was that I learned that true leadership is about service. It’s about helping others. And serving. And waiting. And praying. And crying. And striving. And preserving. And removing obstacles. And so on. But mainly I learned that leadership is not what I thought it was as a kid. It wasn’t about having someone bring me coffee. Or receiving a reserved parking spot. Or enjoying a higher salary.

Leadership is about serving others. Whether you’re the president of a university, the CEO of a global corporation, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of your family, or the coach of a youth soccer team, your primary job is to advance the mission of your organization or team by serving others.

A few weeks ago while in downtown Chicago, I saw a young man help an elderly gentleman off the train. At first I thought it was the man’s grandfather or an uncle. But as they went their separate ways, it was clear they were not related nor did they know each other. That’s leadership. Helping others. Seeing a need and meeting it. Removing an obstacle. The CEO of a large corporation can remove an obstacle that impacts thousands while the entry-level housekeeper may have play in a smaller sandbox. But each has the choice: 1) Be a great leader, a servant, or 2) Be a poor leader.

What choice will you make? Do you really wanna be a leader? If so, the responsibility is high. It requires a large heart and hard work to truly serve others. Are you up to the call? I hope so. They world needs more great leaders. So does your neighborhood, your place of employment, your team, your church, and your family.

Hope you have a great week. Be a great leader. Serve others. And if you’re fortunate enough to “rise to the top,” see it as an opportunity to serve more people.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]

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