My favourite shape has always been a circle. Strong, because there are no weak corners; perpetual because there’s no beginning or end; beautiful in art and featured in architecture. Many people extol the virtue of the circle-we sit in them to share, we stand in them to ensure everyone can see each other, we even relate them to life itself!
It comes as no surprise that the circle is used quite commonly to talk about leadership-I know when I attended youth leadership events that circles, hoops and rings were used to demonstrate the need for leaders to understand the value of an entire process and ensure that the rewards of the efforts they put out are cyclical and come back around to feed their passion.
As time goes by, though, I’m starting to appreciate the triangle a lot more (bear with me, I have a point). Triangles are also strong shapes; they can brace, and tessellate, and facilitate many an equation of relativity and measurement. Although my view might be unpopular (no surprises there), I think that the act of leadership is far more triangular in nature. Or perhaps, I mean pyramid-shaped. Essentially, you lay a base of social responsibility or product options and use staff, resources and exposure to brace the position of the leader. The leader(s) is then elevated, able to look over their work with a bird’s-eye-view and be recognised as the pinnacle of the endeavour. I feel that this model of looking at leadership gives much more credit to the wider group than a circular, flat-model does. It appears that everyone wants to believe that we’re all leaders, and if there’s no real management hierarchy that we can claim equal-opportunity and sing songs to victory.
If you ask me, working as though we all exist on a continuum that doesn’t begin or end, and the organisation shouldn’t be distinguishable in terms of leadership does not speak of effective functionality, but of muddied waters and confused roles-never mind the fact that it is a fantasy no-one actually lives by. The essential truth is that the CEO is the Captain, the Fearless Leader, and all other planets operate by their axis (and do so quite happily), because we all like to have a set purpose; if we don’t have that then we can’t find fulfilment, nor satisfaction, nor thirst to improve and ascend through the ranks!
As a young person being coached on leadership, I have to admit I found myself feeling somewhat impotent-because I felt like these camps and workshops and conferences weren’t painting us a whole picture. And I’d look around at these rooms packed to the rafters with young people, and call me nasty, but I genuinely considered what percentage of those people would actually achieve this leadership we were all salivating over. All keen for a sense of celebrity, and validation of people wanting to hear about our lives, and of course above all that hoping we could make positive change and give meaning to our own experiences in this particular incarnation. It was likely that post-conference/weekend/camp/workshop that reality would smack us in the face (if our parents didn’t) and we’d return to smaller dreams. Perhaps that’s the point of these events-to help you distinguish if you are capable of pursuing roles of leadership in spite of all the odds.
Nonetheless, I felt at the time, and continue to feel today that there is no-one out there running the kind of workshops and camps I’d love to attend: how can you be the best follower? How can you best use your skills to attach to a valuable leader and social cause to give it the best chance of success in this modern world of changing technology (and heavy competition from the thousands of other kids who took the same leadership workshop!). It’s an age-old class divide between the manager and the operator. Each needs the other, but it always seems that the manager gets the fun, creative opportunities to expand their experience of their role, whereas the rest of us take professional development days that seem more designed to convince us that what we’re doing matters, as opposed to allowing us to expand our horizons and maximise our role in organisations!
I’m all for courses in youth leadership, but what about courses in youth pillar-ship? Learning how to be the backbone of an organisation, so the leader can sit as a skull at the top? Where is the space between tall-poppy syndrome and being a mindless drone? Is it bad for me to be proud to administrate or facilitate? Wouldn’t the instinct be to make me the best “mama bear”, or make me an amazing advisor or assistant, or typist or left-hand man? It is no secret that a leader is only as good as their following: we all know it when we play Jenga!
What I’ve discovered is that leaders are of the constitution to create cars: billowing vehicles to move us faster, or to better locations, or maintain safety. It is the role of Pillars to put the engine in place and maintain all wires, belts and cogs so the Leader can best drive the thing. History has shown, that often Leadership can only be a one-man job. We saw partnerships crumble in The Supremes and Facebook: right before things took off the truth about who wanted to be in charge came out. We certainly saw it in the recent Australian government scramble. We notice that the reason why these ventures still continue after crucial parties are unceremoniously axed is because of the Pillars-the people who direct support and are- in their skills and number- able to mobilise a great deal of power very quickly.
I’m not saying we have to be threatening in order to be recognised. What I am saying is the role of the Pillar is one that should be far more encouraged, resourced and exemplified to young people as a future for which they can gain skills and lend them to the best causes. If we breed a generation of leaders, we also breed a generation of cannibals and scattered dispersion of positive change. I might even suggest that we set up a large portion of the emerging population for failure and dissatisfaction, particularly if the only options they are shown are those of leadership, or pursuit of money.
Teach young people to be administrators, relationship managers, fund-raisers, program designers, public speakers, avid readers, researchers, event managers, suppliers, and socially conscious businesspeople! Teach them to be those who give the leaders their power, and influence the causes that matter most.
I will use this moment give a shout-out to twitter, for bringing the concept of valuing followers back into the consciousness. Blind following is no laughing matter, and follow-ship should always feel like fellowship in order to really impact the perpetuation of the cause or message. Suddenly the amount of followers you have speaks of your influence, and the retention of those followers relies solely on how engaging you are. And being a leader is hard work, because attracting a following is a process requiring frequent interaction, salacious statements and connecting with leagues of people in spite of varied interests, experiences, language barriers and cultural factors impacting their ability to connect.
You know what makes the process of retaining a wide following is, both on twitter and IRL? You guessed it, the allegiance of certain accounts/people who loyally carry your message into their followers and reference you ongoing, those who connect back with you in a way that demonstrates your value. It’s the same as high school: the trick to being cool is having one person of particular recognisability make a statement, and then once the key people fall in, then everyone catches on.
And maybe there’s something to be said for standing out, speaking your own mind, not confirming, be alternative! But I genuinely believe that true individuality comes back to the ability to make our own choices with the way our voices are heard. And it is up to us to find modes of expression, within the framework of a cause we participate in.
I’m proud to be a follower, and my only qualm about running some kind of workshop to empower others in being Pillars is that leading such a workshop seems kind of counteractive to my whole philosophy!
If you read this, let me know what you think by shooting me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @papabayj.