Who is a Leader?


“I don’t like monsters and I really don’t like mean people.”  –Melvin Bubble

Could you work for Melvin Bubble? Would you follow Melvin Bubble if he had a great idea? Do you think Melvin Bubble would listen to you? Do you think Melvin Bubble could help you out if you had a problem? Is Melvin a leader? How much more would you have to know about Melvin Bubble before you could support him as your leader?

I’m currently working with a group of kids to write stories and I love seeing their process unfold. They were asked to write, in teams of two or three, a fictional sponsorship commercial. All of the kids started talking and sharing ideas. Two of the kids immediately ran off, one saying, “Come on, I know what we can do! Grab a pen, I have paper.” But another group didn’t, they started making something instead, visually creating the product for their commercial. I thought these two approaches were fascinating and revealed much about their individual learning styles.

One team had an obvious leader, a kid who said, “I know what we can do!” and another kid who was willing to follow. The other team didn’t have a clear direction. They, instead, seems to be sharing ideas and adding to their vision by working together.

When it was time to reveal their products, the goal of the session, the two who had the quick solution and plan were ready to go. They wanted to share first. They both participated, they both contributed to the presentation, but I knew the plan only came from one. I would describe this team as decisive, bold, certain, and efficient.

When it was the other team’s turn, they stood up and looked at each other, quickly realizing that neither of them knew what to say! Then, one kid said, “Hey, we need to plan out what we want to say, let’s go!” They ran off, with paper and pen in hand this time. I could overhear their conversation and both were adding parts to their presentation, both contributing words to describe their idea. Once they were ready, they raced back and presented. I would describe this team as collaborative, experimental, open, and innovative.

Both ideas were great.

That evening I lost sleep thinking about this session. I worried about how we, as a culture, celebrate leadership. I felt like I was witnessing how the dominate narrative, about the bold, certain leader, was taking root with these children. My worry begged the question, who is a leader? Was it the one kid who was quick, decisive, and efficient in leading his team to present?   Or was it the other two, who were collaborative, open, and innovative? Was it the one who recognized the next step in the process first? What about the kid willing to follow, was he a leader in some way? Watching these two teams work made me reflect on different leadership styles and how, as a culture, we perceive leadership. If you were asked which of these kids is a leader, what would your answer be?

Both teams were so involved with the end product. They both found ways to build their ideas together. I’m going to guess, if there was a focus group, and they were watching this session, then asked the question, “who is a leader?” many would say the one kid who was decisive, bold, efficient, and had a follower. I see many narratives about the decisive, bold, certain, efficient leader – the individual leader, battling the forces in a race toward results. This is a story we know well, one that prevails in many elections, across time and culture.   I was raised in the American West, the land of lone cowboys and independent spirits. This narrative is admired and trusted in the West, while the other is too often viewed with suspicion. The most fascinating part for me was how quick the decisive leader was to declare, at the end of both presentations, “We won, ours was the best!” (There was no contest element ever introduced in this process.) The quick, sure leader, recognized his own skill at leading by declaring their team the best! But, when this happened, the other two looked at each other quietly, rolled their eyes a bit, and walked away to go play.

I carried the question, ‘who is a leader?’ around awhile, rereading many leadership articles about the values great leaders exhibit. My thoughts began to calm once I acknowledged all of the kids, at some point during the process, exhibited leadership values. They all, in some form or another, even the one following the certain leader, demonstrated some value held up as necessary for those working through a process in search of a goal. Which meant, all of these kids are leaders. But have we built enough new ways of celebrating and championing leaders who collaborate and celebrate together?

If you look at the narratives coming out of the tech or design industries (think TED Talks) there are plenty of these new leadership narratives forming, ones that champion the qualities exhibited by the team who was collaborative, innovative, and open. However, if you agree that meeting goals is one of the primary purposes of leadership, then what was the biggest difference between the two styles? Time. The collaborative, innovative, open team needed more time to complete the goal.

Before you judge either of these types of leadership styles, first ask some questions. Why was one leader so decisive? Why did another work back and forward with an idea? In what contexts would you want to follow one type of leader over another? In what contexts do you make space for more time to decide on a path? I think the answer may be different for everyone and different in different contexts. But I think the most important thing to understand is ‘self.’ We are all leaders, depending upon the place and time.

Laura Wilcox of Harvard Extension School in writing about emotional intelligence said, “if you don’t understand your own motivations and behaviors, it’s nearly impossible to develop an understanding of others. A lack of self-awareness can also thwart your ability to think rationally and apply technical capabilities.”

But how do you go about building self-awareness? Per HBR article written by Anthony Tjan, CEO of a venture capital firm, recommends five ways to deepen self awareness, including meditate, write down your key plans and priorities, take psychometric tests, ask trusted friends and get regular feedback.” Well, what do you know, two of his five are the exact exercises used by Nick Bruel to answer the question, “Who is Melvin Bubble?” – ask trusted friends and get regular feedback!

In his book, Who is Melvin Bubble?, Bruel goes about answering this question by first asking family, including his dad and mom. They describe him as “a chip off the old block” and “the messiest boy in the world!” melvin_messyNext up is a trusted best friend, who describes Melvin as the coolest kid he knows. Then he gets some regular feedback from others, including, an ugly monster, his dog, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, a princess, the meanest man in the world, a talking zebra, and a rock.

What you notice, as the narrator asks trusted friends and family, is Melvin is smart (he’s just like his dad!), unorganized (his room is a mess), skilled (he can whistle the Itsy-Bitsy Spider through his nose)melvin_whistle, kind (a great friend) and principled (doesn’t like mean people or monsters). Then, when he seeks regular feedback, it appears as though Melvin is quite the lover (according to the princess they will get married and have 500 children?!), sometimes raises the ire of others (the meanest man in the world certainly doesn’t like him), is ignored by some (the zebra is more worried about getting eaten!) and is barked at by others, well, his dog. Everyone seems to have something to offer, except the rock. If these assessments landed on your feedback report, would you take some of the comments more seriously than others? What comments would inspire you to reflect upon how others see you? What might you work on?

Melvin finally gives his own assessment – he states facts (his name, his age), feelings (he loves his mom and dad and he loves fairy tales) and principals (he doesn’t like monsters and mean people)melvinteddy. He states what he is, what he likes, and what he doesn’t like. Can you tell what kind of leader Melvin would be? In what contexts might he be a good leader? Perhaps it’s hard to tell based on this information, but what is certain – Melvin is a leader. Much progress has been made in understanding how our brains work, allowing us to better understand how we learn. We know we learn best by experiencing new information in multiple forms and that interest is key.   Each of us, as we learn, will develop our own style for how we interact with others, depending upon the context. Context creates learning opportunities. Context creates leading opportunities. Once this narrative takes root, the question then becomes, how will someone lead, not whether they can lead.

Each and every one of us, if handed the keys to the kingdom, will lead. I don’t think we know what will rise forth within us until we sit in the seat, nor do we know who might follow. Everyone will have different opportunities. Use Melvin’s self-awareness technique to learn more about your style. Fill in the blanks:
I am __________.
I like __________.
I don’t like __________.
Then go get some feedback from others, preferably not a rock.