Leadership Isn’t Reflexive

  1. You owe the people that follow you and believe in you. They owe you nothing.
  2. You owe it to others to treat them fairly and with kindness. No one owes you this same obligation.
  3. You owe it to others to treat them as they would treat themselves. No one is obliged to treat you this same way.
  4. You ought to be charitable in how you relate to others, assuming the best on the part of their actions. Yet no one is required to relate to you this same way.
  5. It is in your best interest to forgive others. No one is required to give you their forgiveness.

Most of these statements trigger an immediate reaction from people. Either an insistence that this isn’t fair, and why should you have to do something when other people don’t have to do the same. Or, for the more “woke” individual, an insistence that owing people anything is a sacrifice of your sovereignty, and is co-dependent.

And that makes sense, from the second stage of leadership.

But from the third stage of leadership, who we’re being and what we do is given by something greater than ourselves. And in doing so, we can move beyond the co-dependent enmeshment of the first stage (“I owe you this, and you owe me it back”), as well as the isolated independence of the second stage (“You owe me nothing, and I owe you nothing”).

You can make an argument that you don’t really owe anyone anything — but in doing so, I think you miss out on some of the power and impact that is available in the third stage. Instead, the opportunity is to look at the things on the list above as non-reflexive, and notice what that drives up in you.

As a reader of my work, I /choose/ to owe you something. My commitment to write. My commitment to better my craft. My commitment to write in a way that is compelling for you. I don’t have to provide you that. I could choose simply to write in the way that feels best for me (and sometimes, still do), but often, that means I’m writing only for myself.

And while writing for myself is easier (I don’t really have to do anything other than meet my own preference) it lets me off the hook for the greater impact I’m committed to having. If I am committed to writing in such a way that my speaking causes transformation, I need to keep some attention on how my words land with YOU. And that, as Seth Godin says, puts me on the hook.

It’s easier being off the hook. This is why so many people choose and remain in the second stage of leadership.

For those committed to creating a profound impact in the world — put yourself on the hook. Honour your obligations, and release other people from the expectation that they be reciprocated.

Leadership isn’t reflexive.

P.S. What other things have you noticed aren’t reflexive in leadership?