Leadership is a Choice: Step Up

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
5 min read
Leadership is a Choice

Leadership starts with you. It starts with your values and how much you value them. You must have a strong ethical sense and moral compass that guide your decisions. And you must be willing to stand up and be counted when events or circumstances don’t match up to your values.

It is a willingness to take personal responsibility and not relinquish that responsibility to others. You can’t rationalize that others will take care of a situation you find abhorrent or let things slide so as not to make waves.

Every time you critique you also need to be willing to step up and offer positive solutions and be willing to implement them.

As the Marines say, the price of criticism is participation.

Every time we let something slide that we find improper, we lose an opportunity to practice leadership. These incremental acts of not stepping up can form a slippery slope.

Here is the famous speech by the theologian Martin Niemöller on the subject:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

It reminds me of the frog in boiling water fable. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in comfortably warm water, which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

Leadership is about stepping up and not giving in to apathy by being a bystander.

On March 13, 1964 a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in New York City. There were 636 murders in New York City that year but this particular crime sparked a new field of scientific research in psychology and behavioral science. It changed our culture and expedited the implementation of the 911 emergency call system.

37 people heard her screams and saw the murder. No one called the police. It was covered in the New York Times and it sparked outrage and confusion about how this could happen that no one wanted to get involved to save this woman’s life. Not even involved enough to call the police.

It brought up the fear that: if my life were in danger, would anyone come to my aid and help me.

A lot of social science research has been done to try to understand this phenomena and it turns out that people are more reluctant to get involved if they think others are present and will risk taking on the burden of stepping up. It is called bystander apathy and is attributed to two psychological effects:

The diffusion of social responsibility: why should I help when there are so many other people around?

Social Influence: bystanders monitor the reactions of the people in the crowd and act, or don’t act, accordingly. Passive bystanders give collective social proof to each other not to step up.

Here is an example of a leader who stepped up and emerged from a crowd of bystanders. On January 13 1982 Air Florida Flight 90 crashed on takeoff in Washington D.C. It hit the 14th Street Bridge and sank through the ice in the Potomac River.

There was a traffic jam on the adjacent road and a lot of people saw the plane crash. The traffic made it difficult for rescue crews to get to the scene. Several passengers made it to the surface and were quickly freezing to death in the ice-cold water and couldn’t make it to shore through the ice flow.

There were many heroes that day whose job it was to come to the rescue, but only one person who stepped up from out of the crowd of bystanders.

Lots of people stood around watching paralyzed by the startling events. One guy stepped up, took off his coat and plunged in the river. His name is Larry Skutnik. He was twenty-eight and worked as a printer at the Congressional Budget Office. He was a regular guy on his way home from work.

Here is a video clip of the events. This is stepping up. It’s a choice.

Here is a video clip of Larry being honored two weeks later.

Know Thyself

On the temple of Apollo where the oracle at Delphi resided is the inscription Know Thyself. This simple statement is profound. The ancients didn’t mess around. They got right to the core of things.

The best leaders are authentic. They locate in themselves what they truly care about and everything else flows from that center.

“If you know the why, you can live any how.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

Leadership is an act of giving generously of oneself. Ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for others.

Raison d’être

The first part of leadership skills is knowing yourself, knowing your purpose, your reason for being. Authentic leadership springs from a deep understanding of personal purpose coupled with an ethical sense of true north.

The two most important days in your life are the day that you are born and the day you realize why.

Believe in Yourself

“Belief in oneself is incredibly infectious. It generates momentum, the collective force of which far outweighs any kernel of self-doubt that may creep in.”

— Aimee Mullins

A Bias Toward Action

What is the meaning of Life? Viktor Frankl provided us with a profound response to this question. He reframed it.

Instead of us asking the question, he suggested that the World asks that question of each of us, and we respond with our actions. We create the meaning by what we do and how well we do it. And how well we do things is directly related to how present we are while doing them.

Commit to putting your best effort into everything you do. And do it with a smile.

It Doesn’t Need to be Perfect

Leadership starts with self-knowledge. Leadership starts with you. It’s about stepping up. It’s a choice.

Enjoy the Journey.

Finding our purpose requires stillness and solitude.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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