Not long ago I was given an award for leadership. I’m not bragging here. Actually, I’m kind of amused about it. Because for the vast majority of my life I’ve never thought of myself and never tried to be any kind of a leader. In fact if I had a role in most groups, it was the joker.
I grew up assuming that leaders were forceful and confident men from important families who went to prestigious universities…just about the opposite of my background. I was a chubby kid who grew up in a post-war suburban tract house. My parents were lower-middle class undiagnosed depressives. I went to public schools all the way and graduated from a state teachers college with an unremarkable grade point average of straight B’s. Even in the egalitarian protest movement of the 1970’s I was one more lemming who followed the charismatic leaders into a line of cops and often got clobbered.
When I first ran for selectman, becoming a leader was the last thing on my mind. A group of people in my neighborhood were attempting to save our homes from a really bad plan cooked up by the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, a plan that would make Wellfleet the host community for a Cape-wide garbage collection plant that would make life miserable for 200 nearby families. By the way, the Chairman of the Board was a leader with all the right credentials: a forceful and confident man from an important New England family, who went to a prestigious ivy-league university.
I won the election but even then I remained in the shadows, made funny comments, and never stepped up to the role of leader because it seemed to me that that was a job for people who had unshakable confidence in their singular point of view…and my problem was that I never thought there was only one way to do things.
To me, there are a lot of different ways to attack any issue. What I considered compromising, real leaders considered losing. And most times, the issues the leaders fought hardest to win, were issues that citizens resented most.
My big moment came because of an old tree in front of Town Hall, which the Board of Selectman wanted to chop down. We got an important grant to pay to a certified town planner to devise a modern design for the old town green, to chop the tree down and pave it over with a drive-through for buses and taxicabs.
Needless to say the citizens protested. They circulated petitions. They chained themselves to the tree. And the more they agitated, the more the Chair of the Board dug in her heels in and shut them up in meetings and ridiculed them in the newspapers. Because we were the town leaders and we had a consultant and we had a site plan and that meant we knew more than the people. But, of course, the people were absolutely right. There was no reason in the world to get rid of that tree.
I stood up to the Board to say just that, which gave me a new understanding of what leadership was all about, or I should say, not about. Leadership is not about having an unshaken belief in your own ideas; leadership is not about having the best ideas, leadership is not about taking a stand and never backing down.
Leadership is about listening, no matter how sure you are of your brilliant ideas. Leadership is about being able to change those ideas if people come up with better ones.
Leadership is about taking the time necessary to communicate…and to answer questions…and to meet endlessly, sometimes one-on-one and again and again…and to assure people that although they may not agree with you, they are not wrong or stupid or selfish.
And even when you make a decision people don’t like, leadership is about keeping everyone in the loop and informed. Because that makes them feel respected and because you will have to work with them again, and you will never be able to lead people in the future if you have made them feel worthless in the past.
And here’s the final thing I know about being a leader. Leaders have to be able to lose and to compromise…and maybe the people who know how to do this best are the people have always had to lose and compromise, the people who didn’t go to prestigious schools; the people who didn’t grow up in the happiest families, the people who didn’t grow up forceful and confident. Certainly people like me; maybe even people like you.
Because the best leaders, in my opinion, are the ones that can best identify with the people they are leading.
I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.
‘Matters of Opinion” are five-minute radio essays that are aired on the WOMR Friday News.