To Be a Leader, Help Just One Person

An adult woman on the phone looking at her laptop on the dining table while her son uses a digital tablet.
Photo: 10'000 Hours/DigitalVision/Getty Images

LLet’s face it: Things weren’t exactly feeling cheerful for most of us before the coronavirus hit, what with a fraught election, the climate crisis, and — well, you can choose whichever social issue currently troubles you most. There’s no shortage.

Add a global pandemic, and it’s easy to feel like we’re living in a leadership vacuum right now. Trust of elected officials is near an all-time low. Our faith in business, media, and NGOs isn’t exactly soaring, either.

But too often, people take an overly narrow view of what leadership really is. At the risk of sounding like one of those motivational posters your high-school guidance counselor had hanging in their office, leadership isn’t about your title. Or your bank account. Or your number of Twitter followers. It’s about committing yourself to elevating at least one life other than your own.

Here are three ways you can begin leading today, no matter who or where you are:

Think in terms of solutions

Of course, few of us have the power to enact sweeping policy, or allocate financial resources on any large scale. But recognize what you can do, and then — do it. As the poet June Jordan wrote, and President Obama later quoted (as did her highness Queen Elsa of Frozen, with slight modification): “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” If you see an unmet need in our rapidly changing world order, ask yourself, “How can I help it?” If you can’t come up with an answer, ask a friend: “What can we do together about [this thing that’s messed up]?”

Maybe the answer is to donate money to get food, aid, and medication to those who need it. Maybe you can contact your elected officials to lobby for policy changes, like paid family and medical leave. Maybe you can use your social media presence to share useful, trustworthy information.

The Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka recently wrote about how coronavirus has sparked an “epidemic of helping.” In it, she shares the story of an Ethiopian American man in Seattle named Yadesa Bojia. Bojia is an artist and graphic designer, not a community organizer. But when he realized that the lack of information about coronavirus in his native language, Amharic, was causing misinformation to spread in his community, he decided to host a Facebook live video to talk about how the virus really spreads.

Instead of just focusing on the problem, Bojia did something about it. And he likely saved lives — with a video. Something that feels small can, and often does, have an outsize impact.

Cultivate joy

On the face of it, this one may sound insubstantial. But research shows that emotions and well-being spread through our social networks. That means there’s altruistic value to letting the light in.

Right now, many of us are drowning in stress. Joy may feel like a tall order, or even an offensive notion, particularly for those who are sick, or can’t work, or are struggling to put food on the table.

But the health benefits of happiness are significant (and they’re physical, not just mental). So, without denying the very legitimate feelings of fear, worry, or sadness that you might be experiencing, take some time each day to think about what makes you smile — and do it.

Listen to music that lifts your spirits. Look at pictures from your last vacation. Watch cat videos. (If you need more inspiration, Ingrid Fetell Lee literally wrote the book on joy, and she also blogs about it.) When something makes you smile, tell a friend, or share it with your network. You’re setting the expectation that it’s okay to feel a whole range of emotions, even in troubled times.

Be a social media change agent

If you’re active on social media at all, you have the power to influence others. Too often, we use social media like a dumpster for all of our fears and gripes. Instead, try curating your social media presence more mindfully.

I’m not saying to pretend everything is fine, when it (obviously) isn’t. I’m inviting you to think about the impact of what you share. For example, consider sharing journalism focused on solutions, instead of problems; an inspiring quote from a book you recently read; or a link to a podcast that left you feeling hopeful.

If you aren’t active on social media, the era of social distancing may be just the right time to rethink that choice: New research from Harvard shows that using social media as part of your regular routine might actually be good for you. After all, social connection makes us happy, and is good for our health — and since we need to stay apart physically right now, coming together online can be an important lifeline.

Sometimes the hardest thing about change is changing the story in our heads — the one about how the world works or about our place within it. Leading in even these small ways can help you to reframe your idea of yourself. And the more you think of yourself as a leader, the more leadership opportunities you’ll find.

Writer and mother. On a mission to fill the world with stories that tell the truth about women—and with women who tell their stories.

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