“Guys, there are extra sandwiches downstairs.”  The Huskie Wrestlers breaking down tables after the successful Community Health and Wellness Fair on Sunday began to put down their heavy loads.  Senior Captain Cameron Bates quickly ended any thoughts of a snack break with a firm command: “AFTER we finish working!”

Longtime readers know that the Huskie Wrestling program often inspires me, with its holistic approach to developing student athletes grounded in character, responsibility and community.  I personally have been struggling with leadership lately. No surprise that the wrestlers helped me think through it.

We often think that leadership is reserved for the one at the top.  The coach, the boss, the president. But leadership occurs at every level of an organization.  Leaders become leaders not because they shoulder the burden of the work themselves, but because they understand how to build a team, delegate and communicate to leverage other people and get things done.  

Dividing the world into “leaders and followers” is misleading.  It implies all-knowing leaders and compliant followers. I often hear, “you just have to tell them what to do.”  Is that really leading? Can’t we say instead, “here’s what needs to be done,” thus inspiring groups to choose leaders, form teams, solve problems, and move forward?  The first approach feels authoritarian with an over-dependence on a single person. The other builds leaders from within, allowing the organization and its participants to grow.  It requires trust.

Cam knew the wrestlers were there to pitch in and do what was asked, but that didn’t mean he relinquished his leadership role.  He was both following instructions from the West Cook YMCA staff and leading his teammates, with the trust of his coaches. 

Not only is it possible for you to be both a leader and a follower in the same role, it is likely.  Unless you are the top dog, you’ll find yourself part of a team even while you lead your own team.

It takes a person both humble and confident to lead from within.  To be accountable to someone above you while inspiring people below you.  To rely on others.  But that is exactly how you build something that lasts.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...