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Why Leadership Isn’t About ‘Always Taking Charge’

Leadership is one of those shiny concepts that seems to be so out of reach for the regular Joe. The leaders are the big shots, the bosses, who call the shots and tell everyone else what to do. Many people imagine the leader to be the most active, the most vocal, the most dominant person in the group. But in reality, one key leadership quality is actually the capacity to listen.

A university student in Germany, Alex Wookyung Lee wrote the article “Finding My Own Identity in an International Setting” from which the following excerpt is taken. She shares her leadership insights after joining the Trilateral Leadership Summit in 2016 and the Asia Union Leaders Summit in 2017, both organized by the Center for Asia Leadership for young leaders in Asia. She loves skiing and talking about human emotions and life. The full chapter can be found in the book Leadership that Triumphs: Moments of Greatness in the Work of Leadership.

A Korean high school divides its students into eight to ten groups, settles them in classrooms, and calls each one a “homeroom.” Each classroom has a class captain who is in charge of the classroom. The class captain is affiliated with the Student Council and takes part in decision-making processes at school. I held the class captain’s role for my entire time in high school. For three years, I had friends treat me as a leader, and I acted as one. Nobody told me how leaders work and what they did. The limited exposure that I have had of leadership programs was at the TLS (Trilateral Leadership Summit) and the AULS, both hosted by CALI. I had my questions answered when I worked as a formal leader in school. I wanted to help others with my ability to start conversations easily. I had to motivate my classmates in difficult times and take responsibility as a member of the Student Council. I loved my role, but it was a challenge. I forced myself to improve my social skills with adults in order to convey the opinions of the class I was representing.

It gave me a chance to widen my perspective by seeking new ideas from diverse individuals and by arbitrating between the students and the teachers. We go to school from 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., and after the long hours there, many schools often half-force students to attend summer/winter schools as well. Since I was the class captain, I was called to volunteer every year. Outside of school, I tended to act like a leader automatically, solving problems and taking responsibilities. But when I attended the TLS and AULS programs, my attitude toward leadership changed immensely.

At TLS 2016 and AULS 2017, meeting people from diverse backgrounds, I lessened my take-charge attitude and instead tried to hear and see more from others without interrupting them. I encouraged them to speak and, by doing so, enjoyed their conversations and listened to their ideas. I soon realized that I don’t have to act like a leader when I’m in a classroom (when I’m not called for my service).

I enjoyed the TLS and AULS without any pressure to be a model for others, and in that way I freed myself from the perfectionism I had tied myself to. Finally, I realized that I don’t have to be active, talkative, or perfect in order to be a leader. You’re a leader when you’re ready to listen.

Some people might be afraid to call themselves a leader because they are scared to think of themselves as influential. They are probably defining a leader the way I did. Drew Dudley wrote in Everyday Leadership: “As long as we make leadership something bigger than us, as long as we keep leadership beyond us and make it about changing the world, we give ourselves an excuse not to expect it every day, from ourselves and from each other.”

In the learning community of the AULS, I was embraced by diverse people and learned how to embrace them back, determined never to judge them by their appearance, nationality, or anything that caught my attention at first glance. Letting go of the need to speak before others was the most valuable thing I did there because, by doing so, I was able to listen to others’ thoughts. Leadership comes from trusting others’ opinion, voices, and capacities. I was biased before, and I am still now, but I feel enlightened by all the great people I met and will meet in my future journey. I will be free, someday, from the boxes that restrain me.

By Alex Wookyung Lee