What Makes a Real Leader? by Chad Olson, LMFT

Close-up of four business executives standing in a line and applaudingWhat Makes a Real Leader?

I once read a comment about leadership that changed the way I thought about the topic: Leadership includes both what you do and what you leave. This simple, yet profound statement has changed not only the way I view leadership, but has actually changed the way I lead. All too often I believe we put excessive emphasis on what we do, while neglecting what we can leave behind.

There are many opportunities to lead in our world today, whether they include business pursuits, volunteering in our community, serving in our school or churches – yet, I believe that one of the greatest opportunities to lead is in our own families. The leadership roles in families may often be overlooked or underappreciated, but if you consider the original definition of leadership – not just what you do, but what you leave – it is hard to imagine another situation in which you could lead like you can in your families. Within the family setting, leaders are found in the different roles that we play. For example, parents, grandparents, uncles/aunts, or brothers and sisters can take the opportunity to appropriately lead their family. The quality of a good leader in a family setting could be defined as how other members of the family are influenced when the “leader” is gone. As an example, a parent may try to instill in their children the attribute of hard work. The best indicator of whether this attribute has been acquired by the children is not while the parent is looking over their shoulder, but when the parent allows for autonomy and gives their children chances to demonstrate this attribute. If the child has a good work ethic without being shadowed by the parent, you can take it as evidence that the parent has left a part of themselves to the future generation – a characteristic of true leadership.

traditionWhile completing my thesis project during my master’s program, I came across an interesting research question: Do parents matter? While the answer may seem obvious, there is quite a debate in the family studies field. Some genetic behaviorists claim that it doesn’t matter how parents parent, a child’s genes are what determines behavior. On the other hand, family scholars assert that parenting has a direct impact on children’s behavior. For the focus of my research, I studied a topic called the intergenerational transmission of values. Scholars wanted to know what process adolescents and young adults went through to accept and integrate certain values typically accepted by our society. There was a high correlation found between the values espoused by these youth and young adults and their parents. Thus, the research states that the values that parents/grandparents possessed were being “passed on” to the next generation. What a powerful example of being a leader in a family who not only does something, but who leaves something behind.

My Grandmother Taylor has demonstrated this principle in my life. She lost her husband in a horrible scouting accident. She was a young widow raising five children. She was faced with economic difficulties and had to be frugal with her finances to provide the basic necessities for her family. One could often hear her saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Her thriftiness is something she taught my mother who in turn taught it to me. As a parent, I strive to teach this principle to my children. Four generations will be influenced by this wonderful leader!

As you consider different opportunities you have to lead in your family (or other contexts for that matter), don’t forget it is not just what you do, but what you leave that matters.

OlsonAbout the Author: Chad Olson is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Utah and the clinical director of the St. George Center for Couples & Families. He enjoys working with couples, families, and teens on various issues.

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