Great leaders sit in the audience

There’s a feeling that persists that at some point in your career, you’re successful enough that you get to the stage.

You’re handed a microphone and you begin to share what you have learned, all that you have accomplished. You move from the crowd to the curated. And once you get there, the goal is to never go back.

Then your life consists of handlers and last-minute arrivals, back-stage small talk and on-stage whispers. This is the life of the star. A star around which the rest of the us rotate.

This is not, it should be made clear, the life of a leader. Or at least of a great leader. Because leaders should bring others to the fore. Leaders should put themselves in new situations and new conversations. They should learn and defer and choose their moments.

As an event organizer, I see this divide regularly — from those smart and brilliant people who want to grab a seat in the audience until it’s their turn to share and those who want to be whisked away into seclusion, lest they be overrun by overzealous fans. For stars, I can understand. For leaders, I cannot.

Of course, the audience role can be patronizing. We’ve all seen a politician staging a conversation with voters, just hoping to hear from ‘regular people.’ The optics are right, but it can be harder to tell if the listening is genuine.

When was the last time you were in the audience? Because you were learning from someone else or because you were taking turns with another team member? Whom would you rather be, the star or the leader?

[Image Audience Waiting for the Gadget Show Live, 2011, photo by Brett Sayer via Flickr Creative Commons]

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