Most of the work of leadership is grunt work—doing what it takes to support the people you’re leading. Then some sales work to make sure people don’t see you as just a grunt worker. You have to take responsibility for how people see you because no one else will.
I recently took on a leadership role in a project with incredibly accomplished people, helping create a potentially high-profile result. If it goes well, I may have an important achievement I can show to people.
The value of success on this project is not that I can tell people I did it or even had a leadership role in it. The value is
- Enjoying doing it in the moment (or else I wouldn’t do it), even during the difficult times
- Learning from the experience
- Working with accomplished people
One day I may get to give a speech about making it happen. Or it will lead to another role that does. People may look at my speech and associate it with leadership. Speeches result from leadership, they don’t start it, despite popular conception. And what is that leadership? All the organization that leads to the occasion where a speech happens. That means phone calls, emails, giving support, organizing events, finding space, understanding many people’s needs, listening, researching, giving credit to everyone, and all those things.
You can do all those things without emerging as a leader if you don’t want to or have the skills. That’s where sales comes in, by which I mean motivation and influence. For people to realize your potential and for you to realize it, as opposed to seeing you as a grunt worker, you have to communicate your interests and show how achieving them will help everyone else.
When you think of Martin Luther King you probably think “I Have A Dream.” That speech didn’t begin his leadership. His education and early experience with congregations prepared him somewhat, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott propelled him to a national stage. He was inexperienced—according to Rosa Parks, “Dr. King was chosen in part because he was relatively new to the community and so did not have any enemies”—but that didn’t stop him from leading effectively. Grunt work doesn’t need experience. It needs dedication, discipline, thoroughness, and so on, which he had. The boycott lasted more than a year. I expect it needed more coordination and support than anything else—that is, grunt work. It got the job done and gave him the experience and relationships to continue on his goals.
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