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How Can I Lead When I Have Nothing to Do?

March 27, 2020
bored worker photo


I wanted to provide inspiration or lead my siblings in some way, so that was in my head.

MBA student and brother

In my previous entry, “Is Leadership Too Much to Ask When I Am Overwhelmed,” I wrote about how some of my students are rising to a call to excellence in spite of being overwhelmed by the effects of COVID-19. Another group of my students have the opposite problem: Nothing to do. Some still have jobs but they cannot perform those jobs without going in to work, and others have lost their jobs. As stressful as that is, their difficulty is compounded by having nothing to do, for hours, day after day.

One thing these students have to do is homework assignments for their MBA classes. However, for my class one of their assignments is to come up with two events each week in which they will attempt leadership. At first, many of them complained, asking how they could practice leadership when they have nothing to do. During their second week of attempts, a number of them started listing an array of creative activities that they were doing, which they would not be doing if they did not suddenly have all of this free time. Examples include:

  • Making a list of old friends they had fallen out of touch with and contacting them
  • Starting an exercise program
  • Organizing online group activities
  • Writing handwritten notes to people
  • Doing home improvement projects
  • Learning a language
  • Learning to play guitar
  • Planting a garden
  • And more …

In one of my classes, I put a list like this on a slide and asked my students (over our videoconferencing technology) to pick of the activities from the list that does not sound like a leadership activity, and to tell me how it could be made into a leadership activity. (Remember the definition of leadership:  Leadership is a three-step influence process in which (1) one person exhibits at least one virtue with more excellence than she would have if she had conformed to convention; (2) at least one other person feels an other-praising emotion such as respect, admiration, gratitude, inspiration, or awe; and (3) that person or people follows by imitating, complying, or acting in a complementary way.)

One of my students picked “Learning to play guitar.” So, I asked them how they could turn learning to play guitar into a leadership activity. One student said it could be a leadership activity if the person started a band, but then another student pointed out that it would be hard to start a band if they were just learning how to play. Then a third student pointed out that if a person learns how to play guitar, they may inspire other people to use their time to learn new talents as well.

I have found that the very act of requiring students to make two plans per week to practice leadership helps them to see leadership opportunities throughout the rest of the week that they would not have seen if they had not been engaging in the planning process. For example, one of my students said that while helping his brother do his tax returns:

I remembered in an action plan from the week before that I wanted to provide inspiration or lead my siblings in some way, so that was in my head. I felt like I was on a mission to achieve something and make my time worthwhile rather than taking this time for granted. While I was doing taxes with my brother, I was constantly checking on him to make sure he was keeping up and trying to help him make sense of what was going on. He was noticeably appreciative of that. For my sister, I made sure that after I was finished, I went down to her room to talk and just have quality time with her. She is going through some tough times at work due to COVID-19 so I made sure that she knew I was there for her. Things turned out great. I was very happy with the way things went, and I know my family appreciated my presence.

The moments of leadership in this story were small but real. Because leading was on his mind, my student saw emergent opportunities to act more generously. His brother appreciated his help and followed the recommendations on how to do taxes. His whole family felt appreciation. Whether these moments come while doing taxes, learning to play guitar, exercising, or planting a garden, these moments are critical in a world of social distancing. The problems of disconnection among human beings are real, and the solutions, while simple, are nonetheless powerful. We need more leadership like this.

About the Blog

The entries in this blog examine stories of leadership performed by my Masters of Business Administration students at the University of Louisville College of Business. Our classes on leadership began shortly after social distancing began in the United States. I was asked to produce content for the College that would be helpful to individuals and organizations struggling to manage the new, jarring, and complex problems we all face in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but at first, I worried that I would have little to offer beyond the wonderful content I have seen so many others produce. Then, my students began to report on the leadership efforts they exhibited in my class. The challenges they face are diverse and wide-ranging, but their efforts are inspiring. Therefore, I am now sharing some of their experiences, as well as some of my analyses of their experiences. My hope is that this will both inspire readers and also give readers concrete ideas about how they too can exhibit exceptional leadership during these difficult times.

About the Project on Positive Leadership

The Project on Positive Leadership is an initiative within the University of Louisville’s College of Business with a mission to make lives more significant and successful by increasing positive leadership in the world. We do this by creating and disseminating tools for teaching and learning positive leadership, by supporting research on positive leadership, and by connecting with others who embrace the same or similar missions, in order to enhance each other’s impact. We also work in conjunction with Executive Education to deliver these tools to managers wishing to enhance their leadership capability.

About the Author

Dr. Ryan Quinn

Ryan W. Quinn is an Associate Professor of Management and the Academic Director of the Project on Positive Leadership at the University of Louisville College of Business. He has written books and academic articles on leadership and related topics, with an interest in understanding how to help individuals and organizations unleash their potential. He also teaches executives, MBA students, and consults for organizations around the world.