Can you be a leader with no one to lead?

Ever since the Educause Management Institute, I’ve been thinking about this issue. I was one of a handful of people who didn’t currently have Manager or Director or some other “leadership” title at the conference. At first, I thought this would be a problem, that I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. It turns out I was wrong. I came away with a lot of good ideas about being a leader even if you have no one whose job it is to follow you. I have actually considered myself a leader for a while now. I think it started in grad school when I found myself serving as president of the Graduate Student Association during a very challenging time. We had a new chair, and, shortly after his tenure began, one of our faculty members was shot by one of our grad students. Now, I didn’t do anything heroic or stand at a podium and give some kind of grand speech. Instead, I had a lot of conversations–with faculty, with students, and with deans. We had group conversations. And eventually, we had a joint gathering of the faculty and students to kick off the new year and to try to move on from our tragedy.

As I think about where I am now, I think in similar terms. Geeky Girl asked me in the car yesterday if I wanted to be president of the United States. I laughed, and told her no. She asked me why. And I explained that I didn’t feel I had the experience or the money (the money probably being more of an issue, sadly). I don’t see myself as that kind of leader. I see myself in a quieter, smaller role, leading a smaller group of people. I see myself doing what I did as president of the GSA: having conversations, guiding people, offering advice, saying what I think to people in power. I hope in some small way that what I do inspires and motivates others. I see some evidence that it does. I see students pursuing technology careers as a consequence of their working with me. I ran a successful conference last week. I’ve written articles that have gotten a good response. I get regular emails from people around the country asking for advice. And I tend to forge ahead into new frontiers fairly regularly. I try to be generous with what I have to give–knowledge, information, assistance, connections. I believe that generosity is an important aspect of leadership, which flies in the face of some standard business practices which say that to be a leader, one must use people as stair steps on the way to the top.

I would still like the title to go with my vision of myself as a leader, but I realize now that the title doesn’t necessarily confer the qualities of leadership on someone. And, I can still be a leader without the title.

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