What does it mean to be a leader?
We often think of leaders as holding positions of authority, such presidents and CEOs of big name corporations or prominent leaders of non-profit organizations. In fact, many great leaders begin their work at the grassroots level, inspiring those around them by using available resources to make a difference in their immediate environment.
It’s not your official title that makes you a leader -- rather, it’s recognizing an issue or a place where there is room for innovation or improvement, and leading from where you are right now.
One powerful example is how a group of mothers living at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho overturned the base’s public breastfeeding policy, which prevented them from breastfeeding in public spaces on base. While federal breastfeeding laws allow mothers to nurse in any location, “as long as the mother and baby are otherwise authorized to be there,” military officials on base were able to supercede that low to enact the prohibitive policy.
Mothers across the base stood up against the ban in a number of ways, from refusing to stop breastfeeding publicly to speaking out against it on base as well as online. When they shared the policy on a Facebook page for a base
breastfeeding support group, women all over the world reacted by sending letters of protest. Local mothers created a support group called #uncovermhafb, which called attention to the issue online and sparked national dialogue. One of those mothers, Captain Kristina O’Keefe, stated, “I'm not breaking any laws, and that's my right to do so – to continue to be able to provide for my daughter.” As a result of her protest and that of other engaged mothers, the policy was overruled in April 2015, and women on the base are now granted the same breastfeeding rights as dictated by federal law.
There are many things you can do to make a difference on the issues you care about, utilizing whatever resources you have available to you, and by inspiring others around you to join in your actions or follow suit. Here are some of the ways you can get started:
Be the change
Leadership starts with your everyday actions and interactions. You can lead by example in how you communicate and manage relationships, and how you act and react in your daily life. Be intentional in everything that you do, take a stand and defend your beliefs, and speak knowledgeably and eloquently about the issues that matter to you whenever you have the opportunity.
Focus on your community
No matter where you live, you likely encounter at least a few things every day that negatively affect your community, or maybe you see a need for change around larger scale issues. Whether it’s a lack of a recycling program at work or a need for local policy change around something on your block, you have the ability to instigate and lead powerful change in your community. Start by doing your research - find out the history of the issue, why things are where they are now, and what steps you need to take in order to make an impact.
Then, find other likeminded individuals who see the importance of the change you’re seeking. You don’t have to have access to a massive audience to be a leader. Once you’ve identified a change or improvement that needs to be made, start by making small-scale, practical changes, and be prepared to learn and course-correct as you go. Find out if an organization already exists or who else might be working on the problem. Building partnerships with existing organizations is always an effective way to have impact.
Set goals and make a plan
In order to lead effectively, you have to be organized and strategic about what you’re hoping to accomplish and your plan for getting there. Without a strategy, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to mobilize others for collective action.
Once you’ve developed your plan, you can start to get others on board with your work -- leaders rarely accomplish things alone. Sharing ideas and inspiring others who care about similar things to collaborate with one another is is the best way to demonstrate leadership.
Evaluate and adapt as needed
All good leaders take time for self-reflection and evaluation. Good leaders take the time to understand what they need to accomplish, what their limits are, and what they need to change in order to achieve their goals.
Change often takes time and a considerable amount of concerted effort, and you’ll notice that your plan will need to evolve as you move through it. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, and adjust your strategy as needed. True leaders find no shame in the evolution of their plans.
Recognize leadership in others
A good leader inspires others and supports their growth as leaders. Demonstrate leadership, lay the groundwork for success, and involve other people you trust -- then you can support them as they work for change themselves. Good leaders don’t force change or demand it, they encourage and inspire it in others.
Positive impact comes from each individual leading from where they are, using their skills, resources, and voices to speak up and take action when it’s needed.