July 25, 2012 by Drew Stelljes
Guest blogger: Zack Brown is enrolled in the DC Summer Institute for Leadership and Community Engagement. His latest blog on lessons learned while interning and living in DC:
Albert Einstein, the iconic, go-to genius of the twenty-first century, is famously quoted as saying, “If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”
And as much as that may stand true in the field of science (I’m about as far away from a physics major as you can get, so I have no idea), I’d say it also stands true in another field: leadership.
Confused? Let me break this down in science-like terms. I believe that actually knowing what you’re doing is a sufficient, but not necessary, element of leadership. In other words, it’s not so much the “knowing,” as it is the “doing.”
Think about it. We’ve all heard of, seen, or known leaders in our lives. Some may have been famous; others, perhaps less so. But what linked them all together and made us give them that uniform marker of “leadership” is that, at one point or another, that person took action. It could be any action – or even series of actions. Maybe it was raising us from childhood as our parents did, coaching us on sports teams, or teaching us in the classroom. Maybe it was an older sibling, an older friend, a co-worker, a boss – someone who demonstrated and acted on qualities and values we appreciated or maybe even loved.
Leaders are given their title by others based on their ability to act. When you boil leadership down, that’s really all there is. But what we don’t always recognize, pay attention to, or even comprehend is the fact that maybe, just maybe, our heroes and heroines don’t always completely know what it is that they’re doing. Sometimes – or even a lot of times – they’re guessing, wading blind into the darkness, or flying by the seat of their pants.
This isn’t to demean the accomplishments of leaders or diminish their characteristics or values; it amplifies them. The ability to support others when everyone else cannot or will not, even at the risk of being wrong, is the stuff that actually makes our leaders heroes. The mother or father who forges ahead amid uncertain economic times to try to create a better life for their child; the teacher who devises a new and untried curriculum to better the college prospects of her students; the fireman who charges headfirst into a burning home, unaware of its structural integrity but in pursuit of the cries for help regardless.
That’s what I learned this summer: you don’t have to know what you’re doing in order to lead. There’s no excuse anymore for sitting on the sidelines; for waiting for the “perfect” moment or words or actions to come. Because truth be told, those who wait can be waiting a really long time. Life’s too short to not go out on a limb every now and then.
After all, it wouldn’t be called leadership if we actually knew what we were doing all the time.