Could we be “throwing away” a key leadership power?
In about two seconds, without saying a word, a leader I once worked for taught me a powerful lesson about influence and leadership. Part of that lesson was that leadership is not necessarily about big motivational speeches, cultivating a rock-star persona, or the trappings of power.
There is something on a much smaller scale that can wield far greater influence, and it’s a power we may often overlook. I’m talking about small acts of leadership.
Small Acts of Leadership
One day, back when I was still in uniform, I was walking with my Commander across an Army base. It was one of several installations we were responsible for. As a full Colonel, he was pretty high up in the food chain.
I can’t remember what we were discussing, maybe it was base security, an infrastructure project, or a Soldier personnel issue. But whatever it was, it had nothing to do with what he was about to teach me.
As we were walking, unannounced, he began the lesson.
Stepping slightly to the right towards the curb, he bent down, and picked up an old discarded paper bag lying on the ground. He carried it for a few steps, then deposited it in a trash can near by.
That was it. End of lesson.
He barely broke stride, and didn’t even pause mid-sentence. We kept on walking and talking.
So what, right? Anyone can pick up trash.
Yes, that’s true. But it wasn’t just anyone picking up trash. My Commander was picking up trash. I saw him do it.
And that was the power of it. Here’s what I mean…
As our Commander, he had already made it clear to us that taking care of where we lived and worked was important. When that piece of trash came into view as we walked, he must have known he had a few options for how to respond to it.
He could have ignored it – turned a blind eye, pretended it wasn’t there. We were busy talking about grander things. Somebody else should deal with it.
He could have pointed it out and complained about people’s carelessness. Point made, keep walking; we’re busy.
He could have told me to get a grounds crew out there to check the area – there are workers responsible for this sort of thing, many echelons below him. It’s their job, anyway.
He could even have told me to pick it up. Soldiers follow lawful orders, so sure, no problem, I’d have done it. One piece of trash, properly disposed of.
But he did none of those things. Instead, he did something far more powerful: He picked it up himself, and then threw it away.
And then, to really emphasize his point, he didn’t say a word.
Leadership In Action
Blink, and I’d have missed it. Yet his simple act set policy and established a cultural identity far more powerfully than a written memorandum or motivational poster ever could.
What his action made clear was that he believed in taking care of the installation, believed that everyone in the organization should care about it, and that no task or detail was too small or too menial for anyone in it to tend to.
He had said these things before, but his actions made it real. His leadership came not from his words, but from his actions. Leadership is action.
It’s these small daily actions that reveal what we really believe and where we can lead most convincingly. We don’t have to wait for some big, infrequent moment. Leadership doesn’t just happen when our team is down by ten points at half time and someone has to give a motivational pep-talk.
Our chance to lead is all around us all the time, in lots of small ways.
I’m sure you can take this idea and translate it into something actionable for your team. But as long as we’re here, and as a way of putting all this into practice right away, how about this….
Our Own Small Acts of Leadership
What ever team we’re on, we’re all also part of a larger team: the communities where we live. We’re not in charge, but we can still exercise some leadership and influence in countless small ways that signal what we believe, and build a culture worth living in.
Here are fifty ideas to do just that. This list is not unique, but if we want to be leaders, there’s a twist to how we should apply it.
Give it a scan, then read the takeaway at the bottom and see if you agree.
- Leave a few dollars and a nice note in a library book
- Hold the door for someone
- Let someone go ahead of you in line
- Shovel a neighbor’s snow
- Plant a plant or tree
- Send a card to a deployed serviceman
- Pick up trash as you walk the neighborhood
- Do that thing that your spouse usually has to do
- Pay off part of someone’s layaway bill
- Donate socks to the local shelter
- Deliver a bag of groceries to the local food pantry
- Send a note to that teacher you thought was great
- Volunteer at the local soup kitchen
- Donate a coat to the Salvation Army
- Write someone a thank you note
- Run a race for a good cause
- Buy coffee for the person behind you in line
- Say something positive every time you feel like complaining
- Contact an orphanage and offer to donate holiday gifts
- Tip a little bit more, and leave a nice note on the receipt
- Leave a thank you note and $5 coffee card for the mailman
- Give a favorite book to someone
- Put a positive sticky note in your partner’s car or lunch
- Volunteer to pack food at places like Feed My Starving Children
- Actually talk to, and say thank you, to the custodian
- Email a positive quote to a friend
- Post a favorite positive saying on social media
- Ask a teammate about their culture, learn some words in their language
- Write a positive review for a local business
- Leave a bouquet of flowers at the hospital (the nurses can choose who needs it most)
- Send a thank you note to the local police station
- Pick up trash that you see
- Drop off a plate of muffins for a neighbor or shut-in
- Send a dessert anonymously to another table at the restaurant
- Send a valentine even though it’s not February
- Send someone a funny e-card just because
- Start a fun conversation with someone who’s alone at a party
- Make someone a music playlist they will enjoy
- Send a surprise care package to someone (even if they are nearby)
- Bring a snack to share at work
- Photograph the sunrise or sunset and post on social media
- Have a box of pastries delivered to a construction site
- Carry some $5 gift cards and hand out randomly
- Run an errand for someone
- Ignore the troll on social media; scroll down and find someone to compliment instead
- Compliment someone to their boss
- Write an actual letter on actual paper and send in the actual mail to a friend
- Leave a tip in the tip jar
- Clean the kitchen even if it’s not your turn
- Call your mom!
Small Acts of Leadership – The Takeaway
That afternoon walking across the installation had a huge impact on me. Whatever “important” issue we were discussing I’ve long forgotten, but the silent lesson my Commander taught me remains as strong as ever.
People see and respond to what we do. The higher we are in the food chain, the more impactful our small acts of leadership can be. And since they are small, if we’re looking, we can find leadership opportunities all around us.
But whether we are in an official leadership position or not, our actions have the potential to influence the actions of others, more powerfully that our words ever can.
The beauty is that we can start making small acts of leadership happen immediately. Like that simple list of 50 acts of kindness above, it’s actually pretty easy. But here’s the leadership twist:
We do good by doing things for other people; we exercise leadership when we do those things with other people.
So pick something from the list, find someone to join you, and commit a small act of leadership today.