Is Leadership a Choice or a Formal Position?

I strongly believe that leadership is a choice, because anyone can be a leader, whether they have a formal position or not.

Take a look at Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century; he was a leader long before he had any formal position. He was a leader because of his actions, he chose to make a stand, first in South Africa when he was requested to leave a Railway Carriage and then on his return to India.

His actions set an example for others, they inspired people that if they acted that way, they too could bring about change. He had created a belief in people.

This is what leadership is all about. In fact I would even go so far as to say that our leadership claim is much more valid when people choose to follow us, because of what we do, rather than because of a formal position we hold over them, where they have no choice but to follow us.

So I see Leadership as both a choice of the leader to lead, but also a choice of people to follow you.

Too often in organisations I see people waiting to be offered a formal position before they start to lead. If you do that in my organisation, then you will be waiting a long time for me to choose you to be a leader. I will always choose people who are leading first, prior to getting the formal position.

In my opinion, if you want to be a leader you need to start to lead before you have a position, and then if you are good enough the position will come.

I am often asked how I can be a leader without a formal position, and my answer is always the same. Set the example for people to follow, help others, support them, take action, make a stand, or do something that inspires people.

There are also many leadership positions that we can volunteer for: in sports teams, charities, and other such areas, all of these will give us leadership experience.

If you do that and people start to follow you, then it will make it easier for me to appoint you to a leadership position, because I can already see that you have what it takes to lead and that people are prepared to follow you.

If you just focus on being an expert and choose not to lead, waiting for the position to come to you, then I have to take a gamble on whether or not you will be a good leader or not. Also, you haven’t shown me the right attitude that would be an immediate red flag for me.

Real leaders don’t wait to be told to lead, they step forward and just lead. Any leader that just relies on formal position is not going to be that successful in my experience.

I have seen many leaders take this approach, but when that happens their teams do just the bare minimum, they are not inspired to go the extra mile. A top down command and control approach can work, but it is not leadership, and it is not something that is appreciated by your teams.

When we have a formal position, we still have the choice of whether to lead or not. Whether to create an inspiring vision of the future, which will ignite the passions of our teams and will make them aspire to achieve more.

Or we could just look to maintain the status quo, but when we do that we have chosen not to lead, but to manage, again leadership is a choice.

If we rely on formal position to have people follow us, we will find that as soon as people have the choice, they may well choose not to follow us.

So, if you want to be a leader, I would suggest that you make that choice now and look to both develop your leadership skills through education, read as much as you can, and also look to take up any leadership opportunity that comes your way.

This is how I got started in leadership, first through sports – especially rugby, captaining a rugby team gave me great experience in leading people, and also through volunteering to take over projects that no one else wanted to do, as they felt that they were too risky.

One of my colleagues at the time, asked why I always volunteered for the risky projects, when it would be much safer to volunteer for a project which was a guaranteed success. My answer was simple, how can I prove my leadership if success is guaranteed, and also everyone else will volunteer for that and I might not get selected.

That colleague is still waiting for his first leadership position!

Gordon Tredgold has worked in IT for over 20 years and is a specialist in Transformational Leadership, Operational Performance Improvement, Organisational Development, Creating Business Value via IT, and Program and Change Management. He is the author of ‘Leadership: It’s a marathon not a sprint’ (£14.99) which is now available on Amazon.