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Unnatural Leader

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*Note: I originally wrote this back in 2016 and have left it exactly as-is, despite myself wanting to change the narrative and edit the heck out of it. It's important for me to stay true to who I was then, and also assure you I've grown a lot through a brief rambling editor's note*

As someone who identifies strongly as a leader, with a passion for collaboration and diversity, it shames me to admit that all throughout my academic career I hated group work. Every time it was announced that a core part of our semester would be spent working with others, I cringed inside and felt my skin crawl. That feeling can only be summed up as “goddamnit, I have to rely on other people to get shit done.”

Inevitably, we would plan to meet up at a building on campus for half an hour to brainstorm ideas and assign tasks. I would show up, friendly as possible, with the arrogant feeling that I was wasting my time. I would sit there, and wait for the person who was the loudest to show up and take charge, sighing a breath of relief that I could just put my head down, and do my part.

This person was easy to spot. They were the one to suggest the meeting time and location, and start the Facebook group. I simultaneously loved and hated this person.

When we’re young, coaches and teachers throw around the term “natural leader”. When someone takes charge, is loud, or is even just popular, our adult mentors define that person as a future politician, lawyer, or just someone to “look out for”. This not only excludes all of the other, more introverted people in the room, but it also puts a lot of pressure on those who just happen to be a bit more extroverted. All of a sudden they’re charged with always taking the lead, and attempting to identify as someone people should want to follow. I can’t help but feel like every one of these group work leaders was told in their youth that they were a natural leader.

I can confidently say I was not a natural leader in my youth. I wasn’t someone people wanted to follow, mostly because I simply wasn’t loud or “cool” enough. I also wasn’t sure of who I was. I had identified as an athlete for the majority of my adolescence. People used to ask me what I was going to be when I grew up and I said a professional soccer player, and a journalist. When I suffered a serious injury that made one of those two things really unlikely, I had an identity crisis.

It wasn’t until I left school and started my first career that I solidified my identity, and ultimately, my superpowers. After a lot of reflection, I realized I’m pretty compassionate, I have a knack for communication, and I act with conviction. Recognizing this was hard, and it’s not finished. I know this will change. I know that as I grow, adapt, learn, and fail, my current superpowers will form into new ones.

Honestly, I never wanted to lead. Nor did I think I would be good at it. Despite this, early on in my career, I took the opportunity to build and lead a brand new team. I was scared, excited, and absolutely felt like I had duped everyone. Didn’t people realize that I wasn’t a natural leader?

Leading, as it turns out, is a great role for someone with my superpowers. The scary thing is — I would have never known that if I hadn’t taken advantage of a rare opportunity.

Leading isn’t being loud, or being well-liked, and most importantly — it’s not about you at all. Leading is about the people who follow you, and everything you do is now for the benefit of those peoples’ growth. Your job is to grow people. You do that by caring for them deeply, challenging them directly, providing context, removing roadblocks, adapting with changes, and authentically accepting feedback. It’s also a lot more, but you’ll need to figure that out as you go.

Being loud, or quiet, or falling somewhere in between like me, actually has no bearing on your ability to lead. Whether you’ve been told you’re a natural leader or not shouldn’t impact your career decisions. The two best things you can do are 1) say yes to opportunities that feel uncomfortable, and 2) take the time to reflect on who you are, and ultimately, discover your own superpowers.