For all their innovation, leaders tend to repeatedly use the same terms to describe themselves: They’re charismatic, powerful, strong-willed and simply born to lead.
But that's simply not the case,suggests entrepreneur Cosmina Popa, who co-authored the book “How to Be a Leader”with Martin Bjergegaard. Effective leadership isn’t necessarily about cracking the whip. Just as often, it requires loosening the reins and allowing others to take control.
Popa, who co-founded Conscious Venture Lab, a startup accelerator focused on developing socially conscious entrepreneurs, says there's no such thing as a born leader, and everyone — yes, even you — has the capacity to lead.
You see, this is no typical how-to book. “How to Be a Leader” is part of “The School of Life” book series, which takes a philosophical bent to many of life’s practical questions. In that vein, speaking with Popa was part existential meditation, part conscious living master class.
Here, she explains why leadership means approaching your work like cathedral-building.
You suggest that the traits we typically associate with leaders — charisma, power, etc. — aren’t essential to leadership. So why does this image persist?
Those traits are very much rooted in the ego. This can sometimes be an asset, but most often it’s a liability for leaders. And so, when your charisma is developed, it’s something of the personality, and not so much of the heart. In fact, they're often two separate tracks.
You wrote about “defining your riverbanks” — this idea that true leaders are all working differently, but flowing in the same direction, toward a common purpose. So how do you define those "riverbanks" on the job?
When you look at going into a workplace, having a sense of what the purpose of that organization is, and seeing how it calibrates, how it aligns with your own purpose, that is the first tip. In every fiber of your being, can you be excited about waking up to go to work for this company? The metaphor that I like to refer to is bricklayers who know they’re building a cathedral. They have a very different energy about it rather than, ‘I’m just coming to work.’ Because they’re told, ‘This is the purpose of you coming to work — to build a cathedral.’ So they’re part of that. Likewise for corporations that have a clarity of purpose.
True. But many people, especially recent graduates, don’t often find a job that’s in perfect alignment with their goals. A lot of us feel restless or stagnant in our jobs.
Challenges are often a tremendous blessing. They’re an opportunity to strengthen your own core, and anchor into what you want by perhaps looking at what you don’t want. When someone is in a circumstance where the [workplace] culture is not what it needs to be, actually not losing oneself is the most important thing…. If it’s absolutely not the right thing, then it's best to move on. But grow through that. A bit of friction and a bit of tension is actually quite okay.
Another big shift you suggest is using crises to cultivate leadership. Can you talk more about developing grace under pressure?
My response to that is life is not predictable, it’s actually incredibly dynamic. And if we understood how much we actually create, we’d be really surprised. To constantly try and stay within a certain parameter, and within this comfort zone is never the right idea. It makes you less creative. We know the way our brain functions. Once you learn a particular route, from A to B, it creates a pattern in the brain and we go unconscious. What I’m trying to get at is when we have everything predictable, we go unconscious, and the key is to become conscious.
What are some other outside-the-box ways to cultivate leadership?
Giving yourself a mindfulness practice, and also taking care of the body. Exercise, yoga, do what you need to do. And to the extent possible, have walking meetings…if you’re in New York, in a city, if you have access to that, it’s amazing what can happen when you put the body in motion, and no one will say no. So putting the body in motion, and having regular practices, and learning the body’s cadence. We work in 90 minutes cycles.
It [work] is not just about your screen. As I’m talking to you, I’m looking at a great big sunflower that’s looking back at me. That gives me energy.
Ha, that’s right, the sunflower is really reciprocating. On that note, does giving back outside of work make you a leader?
Altruism as a leadership tool is so accessible to everyone. Essentially, you can make a difference in someone's life, and therefore you’re a leader —even if it’s not your job, it’s not your position, and you might never want to climb the corporate ladder. But actually finding a place where you can impact someone positively — mentor someone, sponsor someone to go to college, get involved with a project that makes your heart sing — that way, you are in your leadership. Even if you can’t apply it in you daily [work] life, you can still find your true north.