Leaders are Meaning Makers

There has been a lot said lately about the assassination of our 35th President, John F. Kennedy, as the 50th anniversary of this terrible event approaches next week.  Beyond the various conspiracy theories, what is conveyed most often seems to focus on his ability to inspire a nation to believe that we could do great things.  Time and again he revealed himself to be a master storyteller – able to create a compelling vision that resonated with the citizenry in such a way that we all wanted to be a part of the narrative he described.  Through his words and emotions he was able to move us to want to act around a unified purpose.

If you listen only to the sound bites broadcast via the various forms of media these days, you could easily come to the conclusion that there is an extreme shortage of true leaders in the world these days. But, when you think about leadership more broadly, you begin to see that there are leaders all around us, who were never elected or hired into the position. We see that those who we deem to be leading us (as individuals or groups) are leaders because we say they are, not because of a title or position.  In many work settings for instance, there is someone who has a leadership ‘role’ and then there is the real leader of the group – a team member everyone looks to for direction, advice and to set the tone. Outside of work, we are surrounded by folks who serve as informal leaders all the time – the person who decides what the group will do this weekend, or how upset we should be about an incident, or who is in and who is out. Whether you have consciously considered them to be leading you or not – they are if you follow them.

Leaders generate a commitment to a course of action (which is not the same as obedience).  They accomplish this not only with the words they use, but with the moods and emotions they engender. They recognize that analysis will only provide the smallest piece to whatever issue is being addressed. They regularly welcome confusion, as they believe it is an opportunity to look at things in new ways. Good leaders pick up on universal signs that most people don’t and typically avoid taking themselves too seriously.  They have the ability to break conversational patterns that exist that are not moving the team toward their desired results.  But most importantly, they inspire respect by building, maintaining and repairing trust.

Who are you leading?  If you are struggling to come up with an answer to that, consider the following:


  • who do you inspire in a way that moves them to act?
  • who do you create context and meaning for through your words or actions?
  • who follows you?


John Maxwell has a great quote, “Vision without passion is a picture without possibilities”.  When you tell a compelling story about a future you are passionate about, people will want to join in. 

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