Leadership is an action, not a position

By Gene Chizik

Want to take a quick leadership test? You don’t need to fill out an online survey or take a fancy test. It’s real simple.

Would you follow you?

Be honest about the answer, because that is all you need to know. If you aren’t sure, it might be time to reevaluate the way you lead people.

We have all been around leaders who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. If you are one of those “do as I say, not as I do” leaders, I’ve got news for you. You aren’t getting the most out of your followers.

My thoughts on leadership really come down to one statement. I frequently used it with my players and I use it in business or in motivational speeches around the country. Leadership is an action, not a position.

All of us have known or worked for people who think they are leaders because they were elected or appointed to a position. But leadership is a verb. It’s not a noun. CEO is a noun. Coach is a noun. Manager is a noun. None of those titles make you a leader or give you automatic credibility with those under your watch.

Players and people follow leaders who understand leadership is all about taking action. They follow leaders who bring positive energy to the job every day. They follow leaders who are willing to roll up their sleeves alongside their followers and do the work. They follow leaders who offer positive encouragement to their followers. They follow leaders whose words and deeds line up.

The worst thing a leader can do? We’ve all been around them. It’s leaders who espouse a vision and values they don’t live up to. It’s leaders who by virtue of their title demand sacrifice from others but are unwilling to make their own sacrifices. It’s leaders who insist that their followers listen to them but fail to listen to the concerns of their followers.

Some of the greatest leaders I’ve ever known didn’t have leadership positions. They didn’t have the title of captain or manager. I’ve had countless leaders like that on the teams I coach and in the businesses I own today.

Anyone who follows college football knows Cam Newton and Nick Fairley were the stars of our 2010 National Championship team at Auburn. And they were leaders. But they weren’t the only leaders on a team defined by toughness and a never quit attitude.

You may have already forgotten the name Kodi Burns. Kodi never made it to the NFL. He wasn’t a captain. But he led by example. He was a leader because of his actions on and off the field.

The year before we won the National Championship, Kodi earned the respect of his teammates in a dramatic way. Many Auburn fans know the story of the 2009 season, when Kodi was beat out at quarterback. It was a decision that could have divided the team. But Kodi stood up in a team meeting shortly after the decision was made and told his teammates he would rally around the starting quarterback and his team should, too.

Kodi later moved to receiver, and one story of leading by action stands out to me even more than his unselfishness when he lost the quarterback job. We were playing LSU in Death Valley. It might be the toughest place to play in the country when the Tigers are rolling. It’s loud and it’s hostile.

It was late in the game, and we were getting beaten badly by a tough and physical LSU team. It was that point in the game when lesser men just want it to be over and get on the bus.

Not Kodi, who took a vicious hit to the chin. He jumped right up and ran to the sideline. There was something missing when he ran to the sideline. That would be two of his teeth.

We had to call time out, go out onto the field and pick his teeth up off the ground so he could have them implanted later. He didn't come to the sideline. He went back in to to finish the game out.

That is what I call leadership. Kodi wasn’t a leader by virtue of any position. He was a leader because of his actions. He earned the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. One of my favorite moments of the National Championship game a year later came when Kodi snatched a pass from Cam Newton out of the air and raced to end zone for a touchdown.

We can all learn from his lesson of leading by action. I can think of more than a few politicians who could learn a thing or two about leadership from Kodi Burns. Many of our politicians think they earned the right to lead because they were elected to a position, but they are terrible leaders. They have the disease of me. They are in it for themselves. They are all talk and put their own interests ahead of those they were elected to serve.

Here’s another test for leaders. Do you spend more of your time thinking about yourself or the people who follow you? If your actions are all about self-promotion and protecting your own job, I’ve got some really bad news for you. Everyone notices—except you.

If you are in a leadership position or if you’re an entry level hire at an organization, remember this: You can lead from the front, the middle or the back of the pack. Act like a leader, and soon enough you will have a leadership position. And you will have actually earned it.

Jack SmithComment