John Maxwell has made popular this definition of leadership:
Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.
In trying to illustrate that definition, I often use this metaphor: Every person has two buckets. In one hand is a bucket of water. In one hand is a bucket of gasoline. Empowering leaders know when to use each bucket. Disruptive leaders do not. The way you use each bucket is the way you influence individuals, groups, and situations.
When a wise leader comes upon a situation that’s volatile and tense, he/she doesn’t pour gasoline upon it! That’s a situation where cooler heads need to prevail. That calls for a bucket of water so that you can put that fire out. Imagine the damage that’s created when a disruptive, dysfunctional, or downright MEAN leader comes into a volatile setting and just adds to it! That’s pouring gasoline on a fire, and it won’t be long before it’s worse than ever.
On the other hand, not all fires need to be put out. We’ve probably all seen times when a person in the organization gets really excited about the new vision, the new challenges, or the new opportunities—only to have someone “pour cold water” all over their aspirations. It may even have happened to you! That’s when an empowering leader uses her bucket of gasoline! That’s a situation that calls for encouragement and enthusiasm!
Everyone has both buckets in their possession. Good leaders just know when to use the right bucket. I thought about that this week as I watched the news from Ferguson, Missouri. I saw some good examples and some bad examples, didn’t you? I saw some leaders who were definitely pouring water where it needed to be, but also some who seemed to be agitating others—pouring gasoline upon what was already a tense situation.
The issues that the City of Ferguson is facing are complex, complicated, and confusing. There are no easy answers. The city (and the nation) will need leaders who know which bucket to use in each different situation.
The important thing is not to get caught in the trap of saying what this person or that group should do somewhere else. The most important thing for you to do as a leader is to use your influence where you are—in your city, in your department—to promote fairness, lawfulness, peace, empathy, and real prosperity for everyone.
There’s a popular commercial that poses the question, “What’s in your wallet?” Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask yourself before you rush into action is, “What’s in your bucket?”