From follower to leader: The Rudolph effect

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer: a pariah among his peers, mercilessly bullied and excluded from all reindeer games because of his shiny red nose (perhaps as a result of having eaten too much fermented grain over the holidays). From these humble beginnings, or so the legend goes, Rudolph was to rise to the highest position that any self-respecting reindeer might aspire to: the leadership of Santa’s sleigh team.

Is it just a silly children’s song? Or is there a lesson to be learnt about attaining leadership among your peers? The story could have ended so differently. All our luminescent friend need have done was to rub his nose in some brown mud (the metaphor is there to be found) and he would have fit right in, safe and secure in the bosom of the herd. So why didn’t he? Why did Rudolph suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous taunts to remain faithful to his true colours?

The need for autonomy

According to Abraham Maslow, the famous 20th century psychologist (sometimes referred to as the father of the human potential movement), Rudolph was driven by a powerful need for ‘autonomy’ – the drive to live authentically in accordance with one’s personal values and need for personal expression. This fundamental human need sits uneasily in his hierarchy of needs just above the need to belong, to be part of the crowd. According to Maslow’s theory, it is only once a sense of belonging and connection have been achieved that we can allow our need for autonomy to emerge, but history is full of extraordinary people who have proven the exception to this rule.

Indeed, within the story of almost every successful person is a moment in time in which they were willing to risk the wrath or neglect of the herd to pursue a greater dream. It is curious that we often think of leadership as authority. Yet the word has the same root in Old Latin as the words “author” and “authenticity”, meaning to be the creator. Is it possible that leadership is not about power and position as much as the courage to step up to a level of responsibility that others fear to take on?

Not all leaders are created equal

No one comes to power through fitting in, but only through taking the risk to stand out – to be the person to whom responsibility, for both success and failure, falls. Of course, not all leaders are equal. Some who step up to responsibility become tyrants and oppressors, and in time are replaced because they fail to motivate and manage their subordinates effectively. Other, wiser people, recognise that power is not a privilege but a burden. Yet they are driven by the need to serve, to create, to improve and to reach the potential that they can feel welling inside them.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” writes author Marianne Williamson. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

Will you be a Rudolph or a Ralph, the brown-nosed reindeer whom no one has ever heard of? Will you take the risk to shine in next year?

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