How to Thrive as a Default Leader

Leading by default

Leading by defaultThis month marks the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Every year, Americans find themselves re-living the emotions and imagery of that day through social media and news reports. Naturally, on the anniversary, many people use social media to share their memories from that day including what they were doing, where they were, and how it changed their lives. As time passes, and I add more people to my network of friends and colleagues, I realize that every year I hear new stories of heroism from average people on that day.

This year, I heard the story of a young trainer who was scheduled to deliver a workshop in a rented room of the World Trade Center. He felt the first plane crash into the other building and immediately evacuated his class. He undoubtedly saved lives that day by taking immediate action out of an abundance of caution.

This year, I noticed countless stories of regular people who ran into the buildings while everyone else was running out. Average people who put their own lives at risk to save strangers Of course, no one can forget the story of the passengers on United Flight 93 who fought back and saved the Capital from a plane strike.

I also heard several personal accounts of people who helped strangers get out of NYC, find an apartment to stay in, mobilized resources for others, etc. As I thought about each of these stories of true leadership, it occurred to me that in so many of these stories, the heroes…the leaders…wouldn’t have considered themselves leaders at all. They became leaders by accident. Out of necessity. By default.

They became leaders because there was a job to do, and it never occurred to them to wait for anyone else to grant authority.

These accidental leaders knew that you don’t need a title to take ownership of a situation and do the right thing.

Of course, on 9/11 there was no playbook for how to handle the volatile, ambiguous, rapidly-changing situation, and there would be no performance appraisal to evaluate the strategy. These average people were thrown into an impossible situation with the sole mission of making it better for someone else.

Though nothing in the corporate world holds a candle to the complexity, severity and (of course) horror of 9/11, every day average employees are required to take on leadership responsibilities. Whether a leader is suddenly out sick, leaves the organization, or is just unavailable, someone must step up and make decisions.

For someone who didn’t grow up wanting to be a leader, that can be an anxiety-inducing experience. If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve become the Leader by Default, there are four key things to remember:

  • Ask questions and actively listen to the answers. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s rarely a reward for making a decision the fastest. Seek out as much information as you can find in a reasonable amount of time before taking action.
  • Seek out advice. You are not alone. Ask knowledgeable others for their thoughts and insights. At a minimum, run your thoughts past a trusted friend or advisor so they can identify blind spots, bias, and logical fallacies.
  • Remember the mission. When you don’t have a playbook, if you stick to the core mission, you won’t veer far from the intended path.
  • Do the right thing. At the end of the day, when you’re stepping into someone else’s shoes and asked to make decisions with little background, context, and time, ask yourself “What’s the right thing to do here?” You’ll always be able to sleep well at night.

Leaders by Default aren’t expected to be perfect. They’re not measured by the same KPIs as a selected, coached or groomed leader. They’re expected to do the best they can with the information and resources available at the time. Starting with the “Right Thing” will never be the wrong thing.

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” – Norman Schwarzkopf