“The world bestows its big prizes in money and honors for but one thing. And that is initiative. And what is initiative? I’ll tell you: it is doing the right thing without being told.” — Elbert Hubbard, American editor, publisher, and author

Don’t wait – initiate! That’s the deeply embedded belief system of strong leaders. An ancient Chinese proverb teaches that “The person who waits for a roast duck to fly into their mouth must wait a very long time. Regardless of their position or role, leaders don’t wait for something to happen or someone to tell them what to do. They go and do it.

We often refer to leadership as a position. Because someone has been appointed to a leadership role they are called a leader. But many people in leadership roles aren’t leaders. They might be vice presidents, CEOs, managers, administrators, department heads, directors, or “snoopervisors” – but they’re not leaders. They aren’t leaders because they sit back and wait or become victims rather than taking initiative and making things happen. In other words, they don’t provide leadership through their actions.

In his book Getting Things Done When You’re Not in Charge, Geoffrey Bellman advises, “Do not wait to be called upon…Our only chance for contributing is to quit waiting and wondering and do something. We serve ourselves and others best when we do not wait. Initiate, with the organization and all involved people in mind. No, we are not in charge, but we can act. No, we are not formally designated leaders. But we can lead.”

Leadership researcher, author, and Harvard Business School professor John Kotter strongly asserts that “Leaders must understand that leadership is not just a job of the person above them in the hierarchy…the most common sort of leadership that you see today that is useful are people who challenge the status quo, vacuum up information from all directions, establish – by themselves or with others – a sense of direction, vision, for their little piece of the action, and then create some strategies for making the vision a reality.”

Debra Meyerson, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, conducted in-depth interviews with almost 200 successful “tempered radicals” in three very different organizations. (The term “tempered radicals” describes those change-leaders who use their anger or energy to alternatively heat and cool their approaches as they become tougher and stronger. This is the same tempering process that strengthens steel.) She was looking for the ways these leaders effect change, while staying true to themselves. She also studied how they leveraged small wins, and organized collective action.

Meyerson’s book, Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, provides powerful guidance about how to lead from persuasion and persistence rather than from “position power.” It is all about harnessing or tempering frustration and using it to lead:

  • Tempered radicals are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations. Tempered radicals want to fit in and they want to retain what makes them different. They want to rock the boat, and they want to stay in it.
  • Tempered radicals are people who operate on a fault line. They are organizational insiders who contribute and succeed in their jobs. At the same time, they are treated as outsiders because they represent ideals or agendas that are somehow at odds with the dominant culture.
  • Tempered radicals may believe in questioning fundamental principles (e.g., how to allocate resources) or root assumptions, but they do not advocate extreme measures. They work within systems, not against them.
  • They inspire by having the courage to tell the truth even when it’s difficult to do so, and by having the conviction to stay engaged in tough conversations. They inspire by demonstrating the commitment to stay focused on their larger ideals even when they suffer consequences or get little recognition for doing so. Their leadership does not rely on inspiring through periodic heroism and headlines. Their leadership inspires – and matters – in big and small ways every day.
  • It is leadership that tends to be less visible, less coordinated, and less vested with formal authority; it is also more local, more diffuse, more opportunistic, and more humble than the activity attributed to the modern-day hero. This version of leadership depends not on charismatic flair, instant success, or inspirational visions, but on qualities such as patience, self-knowledge, humility, flexibility, idealism, vigilance, and commitment.