Actions, not authority, drive leadership

The boulder-sized wheels of the charter bus slow to a halt. Jittery with excitement, I twist the dial on my headset receiver and the low buzz of radio static hits my ear. I strain high on my toes before leaving the bus, trying to peer over the fence to get a glimpse of the famous monument that stands as the centerpiece for this attraction. We follow signs to Main Street, U.S.A. and finally, as I turn the corner, Cinderella’s Castle bursts into view.

I went to Walt Disney World as part of a leadership training conference for a job I had last summer. Our guide, Dave, was one of the Park Operations Managers for the Magic Kingdom. As we walked through the park, he explained several of the incredible things Disney has done to create the remarkable parks that attract an average of 30 million guests a year.

As Dave described to us some of the leadership techniques Disney used to train upcoming leaders, I couldn’t stop noticing a peculiar thing he kept doing. As we were walking through the park, Dave would consistently stop to pick up trash off the ground, speak to the individual janitors by name and would even speak in Spanish to the custodians who didn’t speak English. Dave is one of the top managers in the Magic Kingdom Park, so why would he pick up trash when surrounded by workers who pick up trash for their job, or take time to get to know custodians by name?

Tech isn’t only successful in creating great engineers, physicists, architects, managers and computer scientists; it also holds pride in building and developing leaders. Students recognize this feature and rush to file applications for high-level leadership roles in their fraternity or sorority, part time job, campus organization, SGA or any other group with a leadership position to fill. While this desire to lead is admirable, there are major problems with this approach to leadership.

First, leadership is often confused with authority. A leadership position grants authority, not the traits of a good leader. An organization’s president has the authority to make many decisions affecting the entire group. The president casts the vision for the proposed change, brings people on board in the planning process, and sells the idea to show their members that it is the best available decision. If the president fails to do this, they will not be leading the people, but dragging them.

Most importantly, it is easy to step into a leadership role with an egotistical attitude: I’m in charge now, so I’m going to run things the way I like, and get what I want. This pulls you down an even steeper trail to the situation I mentioned before: forcing people with authority rather than leading them with your influence and respect.

As Dave continued to step down from his role I started to connect the dots. Leadership is not based on positions or authority, it’s based on influence. Dave knew he could force the employees to do their job because he controlled their paycheck. But how much better would his employees work and clean the park if it was something they desired to do? When they see Dave cast off his symbols of authority, picking up trash, it shows he cares about what they do. That small act of service highlights a huge character trait of humility.

When he got to know them on a first name basis, it spoke volumes about how he cared for them individually. Imagine working a front line job where your supervisor’s manager’s boss knew you, cared about what you did and believed you were important to the organization? That is a job worth working harder for. Follow this great leader, others start forming into a leaders as well. Leadership isn’t throwing the weight of your title around. Leadership is serving those who follow you.

This means that when people get to that position of leadership in their job, Greek association or other organization, it is not just time for them to have things their way. It is time to figure out what they can do to serve others. Learning how to show concern for others and how to step out of a place of authority to prove it, could mean picking up trash, helping with a report, or simply forming a relationship with someone. Anyone can overpower with their title, but it takes more character to lead.

It takes lots of time, effort and patience to serve people on the lower rungs of a organization. However, if leaders can remain diligent in service, they will see results that sail far beyond what authority can force.