Is There Such Thing As A “Conventional” Leader?


Justin Trudeau. Malala Yousafzai. Barack Obama. Oprah Winfrey. Pope Francis. The Dalai Lama. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela.

When asked to identify a leader, these names, for many, are quick to come to mind. A leader, as is commonly defined, is charismatic, extroverted, and well spoken - a “people person” who has a knack for motivating action on the political or revolutionary spectrum.

It isn’t hard to understand why this has become the go-to definition of leadership. After all, the people listed above are quite memorable; but are they really the full extent of what leadership embodies? Perhaps these names have come to be the conventional definition of leadership simply because they are the most accessible. This isn’t to discredit the work of any of these leaders, but rather to suggest that there is much more to leadership than what is portrayed in the popular point of view.

Not all leaders are great public speakers or sociable extroverts. Oftentimes, the strongest of leaders are those who lead from behind, and by example. This kind of leader doesn’t gain as large of a following, nor do they seek to - their everyday actions are enough to inspire, motivate, and influence those around them.

Think back to the elementary school teachers who made you feel like an equal - the ones who helped you find your spark. Or maybe the camp counselor who introduced you to spoken word; or the best friend who always makes you smile, no matter what kind of day you’ve had. These people are just as deserving of being called leaders as Justin Trudeau, or Oprah Winfrey - they just go about leadership a little differently.

Drew Dudley, a notable Canadian leadership educator, has a theory. He suggests that anyone, should they recognize this leadership potential that they hold within themselves, can be a leader. Absolutely anyone - no public speaking skills or extroverted tendencies necessary.

At TEDxToronto in 2010, Dudley shared the story of how he came to recognize a phenomenon that he has since coined “everyday leadership”. While promoting Shinerama at Mount Allison University, he met a woman in line for registration. He joked around a bit, gave another man in line a lollipop to give to “the beautiful woman next to [him]”, and he changed that woman’s life. And yet, he doesn’t remember doing any of this.

You see, just before Dudley made his appearance, the woman had decided to quit - that university wasn’t right for her - and she was about to turn around and go home; but because of Dudley’s small act of everyday leadership, she completed her degree. This act doesn’t fit the popular image of leadership. Dudley didn’t change the world, he didn’t give a motivating speech, and he didn’t start a revolution. What he did do however was make a tough situation a little less scary, and bring forth a sense of community where it was previously missing.

We’ve turned the concept of leadership into an impossible summit, convincing ourselves that the results need to be monumental, revolutionary, or that they need to fundamentally change the world we live in; we’ve got it all wrong. The accumulation of small, everyday acts of leadership like Drew Dudley’s lollipop moment has the potential for just as much, if not more of an impact than what has been defined as “conventional” leadership.

In Dudley’s own words: “We need to redefine leadership as being about lollipop moments -- how many of them we create, how many we acknowledge, how many of them we pay forward and how many we say thank you for. Because we've made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There are only six billion understandings of it.”