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Recognizing Our Everyday Leaders

May 14, 2020
5 min Read
Everyday Leaders


Written by Gretchen Oltman, JD

Living through a global pandemic has prompted meaningful conversation about effective leadership among politicians, news personalities and media outlets. Despite the conversation, there have been very few solutions to the emerging problems facing the world. It seems everyone has an opinion as to whether local and national leaders are effectively maintaining the economy, protecting human safety and preserving what we know as our way of life. Effective leaders are measured on a sliding scale of opinion, rhetoric, and feelings, yet buried deep in the political madness of headlines and bylines are emerging stories of the authentic, homegrown leaders in our country – our neighbors, coworkers, and friends who are showing great leadership in unusual and unexpected ways.

As a leadership educator, I begin every session by welcoming students who are new to leadership studies with a basic premise: we are all leaders. Immediately, I feel the pushback – “How can I be a good leader if I’m not in charge?” “How can I be an effective leader if I’m not paid the most?” “What if my title doesn’t sound like a leadership role?”

We are caught up in a world of titles, rankings, and rewards. Organizations are built on levels of leadership and with that, assumed importance. This is a huge fault of our traditional workforce – something we’ve created ourselves to align our work product or work ethic with something tangible. Leadership scholar Chris Lowney once defined leadership in an interview with America Magazine by stating that it’s simply “to point out a way, direction or goal; and to influence others toward it.” That’s it – it’s not to have the fanciest title or to hold all of the power in an organization. In another of Lowney’s writings, a book we use in our courses called Heroic Leadership, Lowney states, “Everyone is a leader, and everyone is leading all the time – sometimes in immediate, dramatic, and obvious ways, more often in subtle, hard-to-measure ways, but leading nonetheless.” Today, more than ever, I argue that we’ve been living and working with great leaders all along. Sure, they may not have impressive professional titles, large paychecks, or even a spot on the organizational chart, but we are surrounded by them and many go unnoticed.

Take for example, the leaders who have emerged in a time of this global crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic requires almost every person to adjust their work routine and processes. In that, our organizations are scattered to different locations, times, and patterns. However, let’s look at how everyday people -those who might cook your takeout, attend your local middle school, or teach at the local hobby store emerged as true leaders in somewhat precarious times. As we look just within our own campus community, we’ve read about a series of alumni who, years after their formal education was complete, have gone on to change lives in their communities. These include :

  • Mt. Prospect, Illinois: Jesse Zien ’04, a Creighton alum who by day works for a bank in Chicago and also shares ownership of Two Eagles Distillery, shifted his business’ production of alcohol to produce hand sanitizer high in demand in his community. Part of this effort included a successful GoFundMe campaign to help provide free hand sanitizer to those facing a stark shortage. When asked about his motivation to transition his business temporarily into serving a community need, he stated “It's what you do. There's no other answer. It's what you do at times like this. You help where you can. Of course, we're not putting our lives at risk like these first responders, not by any means. But we're doing what we can to support them.”
  • Another Creighton alum, Erin Muth ’08, launched a fundraising campaign after her own dad was alone in the hospital fighting the COVID-19 virus. At one point during her conversations with those tending to her dad, a nurse mentioned how great it would be to have iPad’s in every room so that isolated COVID-19 patients could communicate with loved ones unable to visit. That set Muth in motion to launch a GoFundMe that as of today has raised over $15,000 to purchase devices for a Missouri area hospital. When interviewed by a Creighton marketing team, Muth noted that she saw a need, felt helpless, and adopted a “single-minded determination” to fill the need to connect loved ones.

It’s not just our own alumni who are stepping forward in certain times to embrace leadership in very personal and meaningful ways. Consider what we’ve seen in recent headlines:

  • Dayton, Ohio Chef Aimee Thomes Plesa, someone who described her work history as “in and out of professional kitchens” for 34 years saw a need in her Ohio community to prepare meals for kids who were not in school due to the global pandemic. Because of her efforts, to simply transition her cooking skills from the kitchen to the bagged lunch area, securing supplies and providing bagged lunch to a hearty population of school kids – and launching an ad hoc nonprofit to feed Dayton’s kid population beyond the pandemic.

  • Thirteen-year-old Charles Randolph found some spare time on his hands in Falls Church, VA when his state’s schools shuttered their doors during the global pandemic. In his time at home, Randolph began producing medical face masks to donate to the medical community with his family’s 3-D printer, including one for his uncle who has underlying health issues.

  • Quilters all over the country began shifting their hobby making family heirlooms to producing much needed medical equipment. Bettina D’Ascoli, owner of a local sewing studio in New York transformed her space usually reserved for family sewing classes into a production facility.

  • New Orleans chef Troy Gilbert observed his fellow chefs quickly becoming unemployed when restaurant doors were forced to be shuttered during the pandemic. Gilbert put those chefs with the New Orleans Chef’s Brigade to work to serve first responders and medical personnel. This two-fold effort not only helped provide much needed sustenance for those working long hours in public service positions, but also helped maintain a paycheck for those displaced during restaurant shutdowns.

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to realize that everyday leaders are among us all along. The people leading these life-changing and possibly life-saving efforts are, for the most part, not leadership scholars, not presidents of large corporations and do not hold the most impressive title in the industry. In fact, many are average, everyday people who saw a need and took the initiative to do something. They did exactly what Lowney described – saw a need and pointed out a way to draw others to it. They were, in fact, everyday people leading everyday – and the current crisis simply illuminated how powerful their everyday leadership could be.

You see, individuals with leadership qualities are everyday people who create a vision and step up when they are needed – usually without being asked. They are like you and me. They are line cooks, grandmothers with a needle and thread, and innovative students who are willing to give time and energy for the greater good. These everyday leaders have been with us all along – answering our phones, cleaning our offices, serving our food, and living next door. It’s our definition of “leadership” that has been misconstrued and made into something to make us feel important or worthy of attention.

Essentially, it is the everyday leaders who really matter in life; those groups of people who are willing to step up in times of need, to pivot their skill set to navigate new problems and to utilize their innovation to work toward a common goal. Maybe we didn’t need the fancy titles all along – we needed each other.

Gretchen Oltman, J.D., PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Creighton University. She specializes in leadership studies and organizational leadership. Her teaching philosophy supports personal accountability and one’s drive for new knowledge. She seeks to understand how a student’s personal and professional path can be enhanced or strengthened through graduate education. She invites you to learn more about Creighton University and our graduate programs.