Marshalling life’s parade

QUESTION:  What is leadership, and when did you learn that?



As an oldest child I knew what leadership was from an early age. It basically comes down to understanding people in a group well enough to have them sign on for (and participate in) a shared vision. And from there–it’s taking care of them throughout the process of achieving that vision.

This is true whether you want your brother and sister to help you set up and run a lemonade stand, or you are shepherding a Fortune 500 company through the development and launch of a new project. The scope and scale are different, sure, but at heart it is a similar process.

Of course I’m oversimplifying a bit, but I’ll argue that at the core, these two things are quite alike.

Naturally I’m not suggesting that birth order dictates leadership ability, but having to be responsible for the well-being of others as a child, you do get a peek into this skill set early on. Where you take it from there is up to you – and a whole lot of other factors that I’m not getting into here.

And–I’m willing to bank on the fact that if you are an oldest child, you’re nodding your head in agreement. 


The boy was 15 years old. The father was older.

The car was a Honda 600 in white with red and black racing stripes.

One of its two cylinders disintegrated after a few weeks of spirited driving, then it sat dissembled in the garage and donor cars arrived in the driveway. Time passed until emerging with an out-sized sound from the garage sans exhaust, the ten-inch wheels moved under their own power down the road until another repair again soon sidelined the car.

Before the notices came to clear the yard, the boy (with driving permit in hand) asked the father to help with the project. The father responded, “If I can’t drive that car, no one can.” Then the notices came, and the car and the donors were hauled away. A few weeks later, the boy and the father waited for a turn at a four-way stop. The Honda 600 in white with red and black racing stripes took a turn. The boy watched the father watch the car and then took his turn.


Childhood leaders. There were presidents, Queen Elizabeth, the newspaper editor and publisher where my father worked, and mayors Jane Byrne, Harold Washington and Richard M Daley. There were priests. 

Popular classmates always at the front of class were never very kind; more frequently dismissive, and sometimes cruel to girls I knew. In high school, the guard of popular students was larger, and more pervasive. 

Leadership had two meanings when I was 13. It was symbolic at city hall, and undesirable at school. 

I joined the school yearbook in my sophomore year. It was a large book, and I was a 14-year-old writer for the people section in 1984, populated by 3200 photographs of flipped hair, scowls and brilliant teeth. I navigated my way around the school, gaining confidence. It was then I learned about leadership from the energetic, optimistic and grounded English teacher who was our yearbook advisor.

She infused me with pride to know her, and a feeling of safety. It was enough she believed in me, but that she believed in all of us, left a powerful impression.

I progressed from a writer, to a section editor, and eventually, editor-in-chief with a staff of over 40 students. Anything could go wrong, but she provided security. Trust in my own choices grew as I plunged through adolescence with her gentle brand of leadership in the wings.

I believe a real leader gives as much as we need, but retreats when necessary. We find our way, and become independently informed about our complicated world. It is not about control, but teaching us self-discipline, and faith we will survive to be even better. 


What is leadership and how did I learn that?

I had good parents. Yeah, they smoked and drank and argued and swatted us kids now and then, but they modeled honesty and took a creative non-destructive approach to life and relationships.

They taught me how to live and let live and avoid bad companions who might lead me into stupid mistakes.

I never threw hairpins down the toilet or threw bricks to break windows for fun.

I played Follow the Leader with my sibs and neighborhood kids. We all took turns.

I learned that there’s a sort of a partnership between leaders and followers which exists as long as the parties consent.

Later in life, I learned that the better leaders are also good teachers. They realize that no one is irreplaceable, so they are usually training up the next crop of forward looking leaders.

They have good ideas, plans on how to achieve them and back-up plans and unflagging faith in the future despite setbacks.

The best leaders are humble and live to serve and when they no longer have a leadership position, they are still humble and serve to live.

They are all around us.


NEXT WEEK’S QUESTION: What is your first memory?

Posted by MMJ

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