I was 16 when I had my first full-time temp job. It was a three-week stint during spring break, doing some basic machine and assembly work in a local manufacturing business. The comparatively good money aside, my experience was a rather daunting one. The image of being no more than that infamous cog in a company’s machine started to dawn on me. While I was only there for a couple of weeks to earn some extra cash, I knew that most of my co-workers were following a highly repetitive schedule where you get up, go to work, put in your hours and stamp your time card not a fraction of a minute too late. My first impressions of the working world were that you do what you’re told and don’t dare to think – not even inside the box. In this reality, the rewards are an alleged sense of security, structure, direction and order. And there seems to be a reason that society has been so successful in dividing the workplace into a small group of leaders and a much larger group of followers: It goes back to that primordial instinct that makes us see anything new as a risk to our personal safety. Entrepreneur, author and blogger Seth Godin calls this the “lizard brain”; a work environment where everyone keeps their head down and simply follows detailed directions satisfies the lizard brain. Even though the lizard brain makes us generic and replaceable, a vast majority of employees simply can’t get past it.
In the past, reward was given to those who soldiered on the most, followed directions the best, and worked the longest hours. No wonder we used to refer to our daily work as the “grind”. Employees who are thriving today are nothing less than leaders in their own realm. Godin calls them “artists”, in the sense that they provide value to other peoples’ lives above and beyond what is expected of them. They are not replaceable cogs in the machine but “linchpins” as Godin calls them: indispensable components of the whole. You find them in your favourite coffee shop where the barista makes you feel so good that you would never think about getting your latte anywhere else. You find them in the flight attendant who puts a smile on your face with their wit and attention. They are the customer service reps who not only solve your problem but manage to make you laugh and completely forget why you were so frustrated before making the call. Linchpins are better listeners – they do what it takes to solve problems, and they engage with people. They are leaders at what they do; not because they have to, but because they can’t help but invest emotionally in the work they do.
Why are such leaders in everyday jobs still a rare find? The answer may be slightly more complex than you might think. People are leaders in their field because they are passionate about what they do. They truly care. The real challenge is that the majority of employees don’t do what they are really passionate about. They are in the wrong jobs, doing the wrong things that don’t really mean anything to them emotionally. This predicament was described by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles in their 1993 bestseller “Raving Fans”: More than 55% of North Americans are dissatisfied with their current jobs. No wonder that a good number of people come to work in a bad mood. Unhappy employees are all around us. Instead of being unhappy, Blanchard and Bowles ask, why not take the lead and focus on improving the situation? Leadership goes hand in hand with self-respect, taking charge of our own destiny and is ultimately born out of a sense of purpose. Author and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell examines a few examples of individuals who decided to rise above the rest. In “Outliers”, he shows that what separates the good from the great and exceptional are two basic virtues: passion combined with hard work. Be it The Beatles, Bill Gates or Steve Nash – what separates the good from the great is practice, and lots of it.
Great employers have long realized that individuals don’t want to be micromanaged. The self-management trends of the past couple of decades have allowed for everyone to manage their own work, time, production, quality, and goals. Former GE CEO Jack Welch is known for allowing everyone in his company to be a leader, just so long as they contribute, ideally with new business ideas. Such commitment generates a sense of purpose, a high degree of respect, extensive involvement, dedication, and enthusiasm. Are you lizard or are you a leader?