When we think of leaders, we frequently think of those most visible transformational figures whose foresight, charisma, and bravado forever shaped the world. However, this view is simplistic, and simply not sufficient to capture the full meaning of leadership. Like the “great men/women theory” of history, which attributes the chronology of the past to the actions of a few, this perspective on leadership ignores one of its most important characteristics — the fact that leadership is a collective phenomenon. The great man/woman does not exist without need, cannot function without support, and cannot succeed without belief. And so this article is for you, the oft-forgotten many whose desires and actions set the stage for the so-called great men and women.
I want to convince you of two points here: first, that you are leaders in your own right, as leadership is a product of a community of people, rather than just a few; second, that your leadership is appreciated and more importantly, it is necessary, as leadership is a complex organism whose success depends on the contributions of many. While these are points that we may already understand, they are certainly not expressed often enough, and these many who toil behind the scenes may become truly forgotten. To start, I will assert that leadership is at the very least, subjective, contextual, and relational. Leadership can be defined in myriad ways including: influencing a group of individuals to accomplish a common goal; inspiring people to effect change; tenaciously working towards a vision for the community. Leadership can be all of these things or none of these things, depending on the situation.
Visionaries, strategists, advisers, and stewards are all leaders in their own right, yet each style is vastly different from the others. Each style has its own place within leadership and that the correct balance of styles in each situation yields success. Great men and women are only manifestations of a part of that balance, but you, the unseen components are just as important, if not more so. Just as Barack Obama is merely the public face of health care reform, just as a clock face is merely the visible pieces of a system of gears, the great men and women are merely those who, by choice or circumstance, have come into view, standing on the shoulders of giants. For this reason, you are all leaders in your own right.
To convince you that your leadership is necessary, I want to make two more statements: Leadership is ubiquitous, it happens all around us at all times. Even beyond the separation of styles, there are different roles that a leader can play. A leader is not always the one who issues commands or makes key decisions. We find leaders as mentors, event planners, counselors, and administrators. They are in many walks of life, they are those who have found a role with which to serve the community. Leadership is an onus on the capable. It is not enough that only those who want to lead become leaders. Those who have the ability to serve should do so as well. A desire to lead is great, but an understanding that leadership is necessary is a benefit as well. A community thrives on the diversity of input from its members. If the capable do not serve, then the entire community suffers. And so, you, who helped out at an event because of a lack of volunteers; you, who ran for club secretary to keep a good thing going; you, who spent all night writing a web page to save time for others later; your leadership is appreciated and it is needed. If not for all of your work, no organization within MIT would function. For this reason, your leadership is necessary.
The importance of unseen leaders is easy to miss but vital to appreciate. My purpose in writing this article was to point out the dedication and service of those who might not otherwise be seen, a point that I feel is too often overshadowed. As a result, many people who take these nascent steps feel under-appreciated and unimportant, and drop out of leadership efforts completely. Perhaps with a better understanding of the many complexities and layers of leadership and thoughtful appreciation from those great men and women, you may consider a greater role.
Nan Gu is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Physics.