Real Leadership Means Stepping Back

Guilty Pleasure Confession: I love watching the Food Channel!

At first, I thought it was because of my bent towards cooking as a place for relaxation and creativity.  Then, I realized that I really enjoy it for the thrill of the chase.  There’s something about being under pressure with limited resources and time to create a masterpiece.

I love watching the frenzy of chefs running around the kitchen gathering ingredients, cooking, and creating spectacles out of chocolate, fondant, and sugar!

Then, as I nosh through my bag of potato chips, I perk up at the remaining seconds of time remaining to watch the climatic moment when the announcer shouts those magic final words: “Time’s up! Put your knives down and step back!”

After hours of planning, anticipation, and hard work comes the moment of truth.  This is where real leadership begins.

Yes, it takes leadership to plan.  And, it takes leadership to be there and do the work.  But real leadership begins when you step back to see if what you created can still stand on its own.

As I continue to read, interact, and observe leaders, I see a clear distinction that separates the real ones from the others.  The real leaders begin the journey with the foundational premise: that it isn’t about them.

I’ve met some leaders who I’ve admired earlier in my career and engaged in great initiatives that helped initial student learning immensely.  But, looking back, the action plan was all predicated on them being in their seat.  And when they left, the initiative tumbled over and fell apart.  It wasn’t built with a solid foundation.

You want to spot a real leader, or check your own leadership status?  Listen to see how many times the word “I” or “me” is used during action planning and implementation.

Too often, even in the best of intentions to roll up our sleeves to do the work, we focus too much on just getting the job done.  So, we do the work while others watch.  Whether we are trying to show that we can do the job or simply trying to show off, others just watch in the background.

But, at some point we step back. Maybe it’s to take another job or focus on another initiative.  Then, the moment of truth happens.  The initiatives that have a strong foundation of a committed team and clear sense of purpose stay intact.  And, the ones in which the leader works alone and without support fails.

The time to test the leadership behind any initiative is not at the end in a moment-of-truth-climax-of-wonder; it is at the beginning and throughout the planning and implementation phases using these reflective questions:

  • Is there shared vision?
  • Is there a clear understanding of the need to change?
  • Is there commitment from the team?
  • Are there many hands, heads, and hearts in the work?
  • Are there multiple champions that want to see it through and succeed?

If so, there is real leadership at work…


  1. Neil – Thanks for helping us understand the most important guiding principle of leadership…”it’s not about me”. At its root, leadership is not about creating followers. It’s about empowering, teaching, encouraging the next leaders. It’s about serving others in their personal growth and, thereby, sustaining a community vision in a manner that is much larger than self.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s