Written by: Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester
At the end of my day-long interview for a Ph.D. Program focusing on leadership, my future advisor asked me who I thought the best leaders were. I froze. It was 4pm on the longest day of my life – having gotten up a 5am to take a flight from Chicago, Illinois to Lincoln, Nebraska, interviewed with multiple faculty, advisors, and potential future peers throughout the day, and then finding myself sitting across from a well-known and somewhat intimidating leadership scholar. I stammered out one of the only leaders I could think of: Oprah. Oprah! I felt so foolish – how could a talk-show host be a leader?
I have not been able to get that moment out of my head – going on 15 years now. I was sure I had blown the interview. Luckily, I didn’t, but I wonder sometimes if my advisor thinks of that answer as a good one or not. But to be honest, I do see Oprah as a leader. A woman that could make a book, a chef, a designer, a personal trainer, a product become so successful just by endorsing it on her show. A woman that could break the internet (back in its earlier days) just by including a product on her “Favorite Things” show. A woman who has since started her own TV network, brought attention to overlooked stories of powerful women, and served as a cultural force for decades. When I see Oprah in her magazine, on TV, or hear about her accomplishments, I’m immediately transported back to that July afternoon.
I didn’t know it yet, but that was a moment that mattered to my conceptualization of leadership. Oprah is a great example of an individual that influences followers to take action. And that moment, where I immediately felt so foolish but eventually came to understand that my belief in leadership as an influence process instead of a dictatorial or directive approach shifted my perspective on how I learn about leadership, how I teach leadership, and how I enact leadership on a daily basis.
So how can others search for those moments that matter, or trigger moments? My example with Oprah is about shifting perspectives – something important for an individual leaving one career in industry for an academic life. Other ways to use trigger moments include noticing when and where leadership opportunities arise. Perhaps you were not selected for a training program at work – this is a leadership opportunity. Perhaps you ended up refereeing for your kids’ soccer game because no other parents showed up. Perhaps you coordinated a night out for your friends to celebrate someone’s birthday. These might not seem like leadership opportunities, in fact, they might seem like disappointments or distractions from your career goals. BUT, reframing them as leadership opportunities creates a developmental opening.
Not selected for a training program? – set a meeting with your manager to determine why or why not. Make it apparent that you are ready and willing to move to the next level by accepting any constructive criticism that comes your way.
Refereeing a soccer game? Be sure to reflect upon the things you notice during the game – which kids are playing well together. Which directions are accepted by the children? Which parents are encouraging or frustrating their players? What emotions do you feel during and after the game that you can recognize and incorporate into your leadership style?
Coordinating a night out for friends or family? What actions are you taking that are leadership behaviors? Which style is effective – do you need to be more directive or participative? Compare this to your approach at work. Which behaviors get a better response from your group?
By treating these types of different occasions as leadership development opportunities, you are building your leadership behavioral repertoire. Keep your eyes out for as many chances to emerge as a leader as possible, and you will continue to stock up your leadership toolbox. Maybe it even involves Oprah.