What I Learned as a Failed Gang Leader

December 21, 2015 — Leave a comment

I didn’t start thinking much about leadership until I was a senior in college. But it’s crazy how many lessons I can draw from my younger years. Incidentally, one of them was my “gang activity.” I joined a gang when I was younger. Actually I sort of started one. Now before you get too surprised, I should mention that I was probably about 10 years old and the gang consisted of about 3 or 4 neighborhood friends. And it essentially existed in theory only – and only until my dad told us we couldn’t call it a gang and had to call it a club instead. (As a homeschool kid, the association with drugs and crime was still over my head at that point). Nevertheless, here are several things my oblivious self could have done differently from a leadership standpoint.

People Silhouette

Use Your Leadership Role to Serve Others (Not Yourself)

In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, former USC president Steven Sample noted that many people want to “be” the leader, but not so many want to “do” leader. In other words, it’s supposed to be a role, not a title. I remember when my buddy suggested we start a “gang.” “In fact, you can be the leader,” he said. I didn’t really know how the formal association would change our normal activities, but I was intrigued at being the leader. We quickly created a hierarchy, which ended up causing more problems than it solved. In the end, I would’ve fared much better had I realized that the point of leadership isn’t to serve yourself.

Know Why You Exist

Like so many organizations, our small group of friends had a name, but we weren’t really sure what we stood for. You’ve probably encountered a similar situation. Everyone gets so busy in the day-to-day that it takes an organizational crisis to finally expose an accompanying identity crisis. A compelling purpose sets your organization apart from the rest – otherwise why should anyone stay with you?

Chart the Course

With no vision, the people perish – as the old proverb goes. Every organization should know where it’s going and set the direction accordingly. Our “gang” wasn’t real clear on this either. I think we envisioned building kid forts at the local creeks, but we never got around to articulating our goals. As a results, the rationale for our activities was hazy at best.

Be Inclusive vs. Exclusive

My biggest leadership lesson in the gang probably came the day I received a call from another kid’s mom telling me he’d been crying since I wouldn’t let him in our gang and she wanted me to explain myself. At first I didn’t know what she was talking about but it came together pretty quickly. What had happened was another friend (my #3, I think) had told me this fellow had said our gang was dumb, so as the leader, shouldn’t I decide that he couldn’t be in our gang? I had said “sure” and then forgotten about it. Until now – on the phone. All I knew is I didn’t want to have another conversation like that again soon.

Not everyone needs to be in your “gang.” You want the right people on the inside and you want to be clear about who and how you serve the people on the outside. But the focus should be inclusive – how to find great fits, rather than exclusive – how to keep people out.

And for the record, I think if every gang leader was forced to listen to upset mothers after each tiff, there’d probably be a lot fewer problems.

Demonstrate Results

Ultimately, as leaders we’re all judged by our results – including the collective results of the organizations we lead. I don’t think we accomplished one single thing in our gang. In fact, I think I lost all interest after the conversation with the aforementioned mother. Things just fizzled out from there. Without results, you lose the opportunity to lead. No excuses – that’s just how it works.

You may not have participated in prior gang activity – and if you have, I hope it was as short and relatively harmless as my experience was. But the principles of effective leadership are universal. Organizations succeed or fail based on the leadership capacity at the top.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.