Recently I have been confronted by the truth expressed by this title.  Two stories, just two simple stories will help paint the picture for you of exactly what I mean.

These two stories demonstrated to me that leadership is really only true leadership if it is accompanied by action, or even better, by activism.  It is insufficient to intellectually understand issues or problems, but quite another to demonstrate through action what you think the solutions are.  This is where we find true leadership.

So much of how we define leadership is about some high level of skill at influencing others, for example, or bigger picture thinkers, strategists, highly credible and trustworthy individuals.

When confronted, many of us would say, yes, I am a great leader based on that description.  But I have to admit, I was forced to analyze the level of my leadership as of late.  I was forced to dig a little deeper to consider the question of whether or not I make the “cut” as a great leader.

The two stories I mentioned earlier are: 1. Hearing Jane Goodall speak and 2. A friend telling me I wasn’t doing enough to confront racial bias.

I will explain story 2 first: A friend (let’s call him Fred) makes a racially discriminate comment to me, to which I say “come on, you can’t say that”, switch the subject and keep moving.

Then one day I find myself telling another friend, Sanj, about that conversation with Fred.  Sanj pointedly tells me that if I don’t say something about Fred’s racial comment, then I am complicit in his discrimination.

I argue, I don’t believe in what they believe–I just don’t feel I need to “evangelize” my thinking / my beliefs to people.  My friend forcefully explains that silence allows poor behavior to go unchecked.  Furthermore, I have a role to play in not staying silent, and in fact, if I was a person of fortitude, I would say something.

I find myself confronted and thinking more deeply about it.

Then comes along story 1. A month back, I had the privilege of attending a conference in San Francisco where Jane Goodall was one of the keynote speakers. She is a force unto herself, Jane Goodall.

She spoke about the power of persistence and standing up for things you believe in.  In her working life, she was working at a time when science and biology refused to acknowledge that any other animal, besides humans, were capable of social and communal behavior.

Jane was witnessing it in her observation of monkeys.  Yet no one would believe her.  She was discounted because she was not a “real”, tenured scientist and she was a woman.

She finally convinced National Geography to come and photograph what she was seeing.  All of a sudden, science and biology was forced to re-think that conclusion.  She persisted against adversity to change peoples’ minds and pushed science to evolve into the understanding of social science and dynamics of animals in social communities.

Jane now makes her living traveling the world continuing to talk about her work, but she also has a new passion—a new topic for persistence and activism.  She is standing up for climate change and asking people to consider the impact of our everyday life on the earth.  She is 80 years old.

I was shamed into thinking about my own inaction in this regard.  I intellectually understand the issue of climate change.  I believe the problem is real and yet I don’t do anything “active” around it.  I recycle, yes, I walk if I can. I work for a consulting company with an environmental policy (reducing our carbon footprint and not spending time on airplanes).  Beyond that, nothing.  Is it enough?

These two stories exemplify for me that no, in fact, it is not enough.  There is more I can do.  There is more I should do.  To call oneself a leader, one should be looking for ways to follow up theory and dialogue with demonstration and action.  People around me should visibly see values in action based on the choices I make, and my behavior.  So for these reasons, I am calling on more leadership from myself and others around me.

Why not consider the extent to which you are walking the talk?  Are you demonstrating, through your action and your behavior, what you believe?  Are you leading what is required to be led around you, at home and at work?

Consider it — take on just one thing, one thing that bothers you, that you know is not right – and look for ways to challenge yourself to new levels of action/activism around influencing it.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant
Kwela Leadership