The heart of leadership

Like many people, I was deeply moved by the brave individuals who ignored their own safety to help victims just seconds after the recent Boston Marathon bomb blasts. How and why did they do such courageous things that day? The actions of Matt Patterson, Carlos Arredondo, Michael Chase and others in Boston speak to something deep at the heart of leadership.

What is leadership? Here’s my definition: it’s about making positive change happen which otherwise would not have happened. Action is key: when you make a difference by acting, you are leading. Knowing the right thing to do, or the right framework to use, gets you part of the way there—but that’s not leading, yet. To lead you must act on what you know and feel is right.

Now consider this brief video from 2003—each time I see it, I know I am witnessing true leadership at work:

The situation: young Natalie Gilbert is performing the Star-Spangled Banner before the start of a professional basketball game, and she stumbles. Just imagine the heartbreak of flubbing your lines in front of 20,000 strangers—at age 13. Thank goodness for the proactive kindness of Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, then the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.

As I watch Mo Cheeks here, his actions conjure questions similar to those inspired by the Boston Marathon first responders: Of all the adults on the floor of the arena, why was he the only one to act? Why did he help without hesitation? And the big one: why did he risk his professional reputation on national television to aid a girl he didn’t know? Clearly carrying a tune is not his professional calling…

But leading is. Mo Cheeks helped Natalie because, much like those leaders in Boston, he prioritized the change needed in the world over how he might fare in the process of making it happen. He shows us that leadership demands that we act even if in doing so we jeopardize our own well-being. Because life is rarely perfect, to lead we must balance the imperfections of our present situation, abilities, and ideas against the premise of a future where we did not act. What if Cheeks hadn’t rushed to help? He certainly would have avoided embarrassment, but a young girl would have been left standing, alone. Through his leadership, Mo Cheeks not only helped another person, but lifted the spirits of everyone present—as well as all of us watching a decade later. The emotional swell of everyone singing along with Natalie is truly inspiring.

At the heart of leadership is a deceptively simple question: “Am I willing to risk my personal reputation, status, and safety for the good of others?” Sometimes in life it can feel foolhardy to rush in to try and make a difference, but doing so is rarely a foolish act. It’s an act of leadership.


(a version of this post appeared on my LinkedIn Influencers page)