Looking up at the sky last October, I noticed a flock of Canadian Geese on their way south for the winter (maybe they were going to Dallas). The tight formation glided crisply through the sky, and the leader of the flock was centered in the perfect “V” formation as the birds made their way to their new home.
At first glance, I was tempted to label this as a significant act of leadership. Confident, brave, and diligent, the fearless goose led with his loyal flock trailing behind. He had no idea of what to expect: winds, storms, predators. He followed his compass and motivated the other geese to work towards the common goal of heading somewhere warm. But something was missing, and the goose’s behavior suddenly seemed rather genetic. I realized that while all of the things I noted were important characteristics of leaders, the definition of true leadership is far more complex and is rooted not in knowing how to do something, but why you are doing it.
One of my favorite writers Simon Sinek talks about the balance of a “Golden Circle”. He focuses “WHY” at the center, and the guiding principles of “HOW” lead to the end product of “WHAT”. In his book, Start With Why Sinek writes, “Great leaders are in pursuit of WHY, they hold themselves accountable to HOW they do it, and WHAT they do serves as the tangible proof of what they believe.” The critical question of why a person is called to lead is multifactorial. It might start with a sense of responsibility that stems from self-awareness. Other times a person is compelled by integrity, values, or sheer love of a subject to solve a problem.
Perhaps nowhere is the question “why?” more applicable than to business development. With a clearly defined purpose, a strong leader can motivate and inspire his team to work towards a goal, and not just a series of projects. This type of management fosters character, self-responsibility, and mutual trust. A company whose actions always point toward its objective is exponentially stronger than a company that’s solely working on its tangible product. An effective leader will rally the team together to accomplish a common goal, he won’t force someone to write my thesis for me, he would work with his team all together. He or she does this by anticipating the path ahead, and working tirelessly to create and embrace the vision.
When I helped start Rhidian Tech in early September of 2015, we set out to build simple tech solutions to educational problems. Our app, Edupass, tackles flexible scheduling and builds system transparency. Progress developed quickly and by March we were meeting with principals, superintendents, pillars of the business community, and even legislators. As a youth startup company we were featured in local articles, and won the FedEx Award at the Junior Achievement National Student Leadership Summit in Washington, DC! Our future seemed limitless.
It caught me by surprise, then, when the company almost fell apart last January. With roughly 400 hours invested in our venture and little to show for it, our realized goals were slowly crumbling. Motivation was low as team members trickled out. I knew there had to be an overhaul in our structure. I had two options: fold up Edupass, and invest in a new project, or take a chance and redouble my efforts.
In hard times especially, people need someone to look to – someone to give them direction. It was time to act. I remembered something else Sinek wrote: “a leader chooses to go first into danger, headfirst toward the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.” I needed people who believed our vision. I had to work extra hard on my communication skills and control my stutter. Through many hours of self-reflecting, listening to my team, and molding Rhidian Tech’s vision, I was able to help rebuild the company by rebuilding the team.
Sinek’s Golden Circle is applicable to many circumstances, and students have several opportunities to be active outside of the business world. In the midst of action, one should not confuse leadership with leading. Being a leader is always intrinsic. Whether it’s exemplified in a game of football, student council, band, or choir, the patterns are always the same. In leadership’s most basic form, it sets the example. Leadership is being the visionary, and before a person takes a lead role he/she needs to first ask, “Why am I doing this?” The call to leadership should be an extension of his/her life, because without purpose the accolades become a collection of flat certificates and pretty medals in a storage box, and real cutting-edge success is lost. Picasso would have skipped Cubism. Henry Ford would have set out looking faster horses and Elon Musk would have stopped before SpaceX.