Leader by Leader

by: Kyle Johnson, Past President


All too often we misinterpret the term “leader” as relating to specific positions in a company. Likewise, this misinterpretation provides convenient cover for us when we’d prefer to “lay low” or “stay in my lane” or worse, to play the role of victim to a boss who just “doesn’t get it.” The fact is, we must be leaders at every level.

If you’re not exactly embracing this notion today, you deserve to know it is likely preventing you from realizing your full potential as a nonprofit professional and undisputed Change Maker. 

In Jocko Willink’s book, “Extreme Ownership,” he and his colleague, Leif Babin, share real experiences from their time as Navy Seal’s working to liberate the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) brutal dominance. They use this platform to articulate leadership principles applicable to many aspects of our lives as people, employees, and as leaders. Vinayak Ranade summarizes the book by asserting the following lessons (excerpt):

  1. Seize accountability, don’t avoid it…
  2. Not accepting substandard performance is more important than setting loftier standards
  3. Everyone has to believe in the mission
  4. The simpler the plan, the more likely your team will understand it, and the more likely your team will succeed
  5. In a chaotic and high stakes environment (sound familiar?), prioritize the most important thing and tackle it first
  6. Empower those around you… Whether you’re a manager or a peer, trust the people around you to make decisions in their scope of work
  7. Discipline in execution helps the team out-maneuver the competition strategically

Now, this might sound a bit cold or “corporate,” but hear me out… What is the outcome of our staying focused, disciplined, open, honest, and humble in our work as a leader or team member? That’s right, the outcome is more people helped, in better ways. Or the enrichment of our culture through the arts. Or the broadening of our tolerance and understanding. Or the protection of animals or the protection of our environment. Or maintaining the fidelity of social justice. Or the feeding of our community’s hungry…

You picking up what I’m putting down?

Which mission do you represent? Why do you care about the mission? What will the world look like when you fully achieve your mission? These are important questions and, if you’re busy getting twisted because your boss asks stupid questions, seems to want to micro-manage you, or appears “out of touch” with what’s happening on the front lines you’re not going celebrate the full achievement of the mission anytime soon.

To make optimal impact for our cause, we must embrace the fact that we are leaders at every level. The “stupid questions” a boss asks are not a secret ploy to annoy you – really, they are a gift – a strong indication that your boss has not been given a clear understanding of what’s happening. Their “stupid questions” or prohibitive behavior is likely a symptom of their not having enough or the right information to allow you to operate in your point of highest value for the mission.

Own it, then be a leader and correct it.

Lead Up the chain, not just down.

After all, I respectfully assert – it is not about you and it’s not about your boss. If you’re doing it right, it is all about the mission and the great many people relying on you to achieve it. If you’re reading this, you’ve more than likely been given an incredible gift – the opportunity to live each day as a servant leader. You literally get paid to enrich communities and culture, to change lives, and even save them. Accept this. Own this. Now own your role in it all.

Lead. There won’t likely be an invitation. Lead anyway. Recognize your role in the lives of others and stay ready. Yours is an honorable profession. Give thanks. Then get to work. I am definitely not alone in being deeply grateful for the smart, dedicated, and caring people like you doing serious work in our community every day. Thank you for applying your life to benefit others.

You, my friend, are changing the world.