The Unlikely Leader

by Jennifer Miller on July 18, 2009

in Communication, Leadership

Lessons from a Teenaged Underachiever

On his Lead Change Group blog, Mike Henry Sr. ruminated on the circumstances under which it would be OK to tell a “white lie” at the office. He posed the question “If no one knows you lied, are you a truthful person?”  That question sparked a memory of a leadership lesson learned from an unlikely source…

Years ago, for about a decade,  I was an Advisor for the Junior Achievement “Company Program”.  This is a program in which a group of high school students runs a company of their making—complete with electing officers from their peer group.  For years, I watched as teenagers were elected by their classmates (or in some cases, complete strangers) to positions of responsibility and authority— Company Treasurer, Vice President or President.  My fellow Advisors and I agreed early on that the students were running the show; our role was to guide, but not to dictate any decisions.

One year, we had a Company President that was, in my opinion, an “average” performer.  He was outgoing enough, but didn’t seem to take the responsibility of his position too seriously. He could often be found joking with his friends in the corner while others scurried around, making products to sell, or creating marketing flyers. At the end of the program year, this Company  President was faced with an ethical dilemma: go public with a small accounting error in a “gray area” that would cost his team the Company of the Year award, or remain silent. As his Advisors, we held true to our word: we said the decision was his to make. He was the leader of the company and therefore needed to make the call. His initial reaction?  “This sucks.  This really sucks.” (So much for grace under pressure.) We gave him a day to decide and left the meeting wondering how it would play out.

He chose to admit the mistake and he, along with 35 fellow “employees” in his company were denied the award.  In the wake of this decision he wrote an essay titled “Leadership: It’s What You Do When Nobody’s Looking.” The Executive Director of Junior Achievement was so impressed by this essay that he allowed our Company President to read it in front of hundreds of people at the JA awards program. 

Every time I think of this story, I’m reminded that leadership:

  • Is an act that requires a conscious decision
  • Comes from unlikely sources, even a laid-back 17 year old
  • Requires painful choices, even when it’s the right thing to do

In what areas have you found unlikely examples of leadership?  Please share with me your “leadership when nobody’s looking” stories.  I look forward to hearing them.

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