Why Leaders Must be in the Arena

October 31, 2019

True leadership requires active participation

To truly learn and lead, you need to be in the game – as a participant, not a spectator.

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Another week, another college campus. This time, it was Parents Weekend at Tufts. At one event, the presenter spoke about the importance of experience: “Academics is important, as it stretches the mind, fosters creativity and challenges you to see different perspective. But it can never replace experience.” His advice? Jump in, get involved and learn through action. 

This struck a chord with me. I have always been a big believer in risk taking and challenging yourself, trying to do things others won’t or might advise against. I think you learn a lot in those successes and failures. And it’s in that active participation that true leaders emerge.

How are you showing up?

Sometimes, as we grow in our career and take on leadership roles, we lose the idea of being *in* the game. We may even relegate ourselves to acting as spectators or (worse) commentators, full of judgement or criticism that’s disguised as ideas or advice. 

You can measure leaders based upon how they show up when the chips are down. Were they in it only for the glory, or were they in it to see it through, regardless of difficulty or outcome? 

To truly learn and lead, you need to be in the game – as a participant, not a spectator.

I was sharing these thoughts with my wife, when she reminded me of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech. It’s probably his most famous, often referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech, for this inspirational portion: 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

These lines have been quoted by leaders of all stripes, who both faltered (President Nixon’s farewell speech) and soared (a Washington Nationals player read it to his teammates before they won a big divisional game). 

Striving and erring is all part of the leadership cycle. It’s what you signed up for, so dare greatly – and lead.

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