Youth Canada

What Does it Mean to be a Leader?

29-01-2009 by Joshua Liu

What Does it Mean to be a Leader?

Modern day education systems constantly stress the importance of developing leadership skills. Students who have “demonstrated leadership and “initiative” are the ones desired by higher education programs, as obvious through a glance at university admissions booklets and scholarship applications. Yet one of the things I find really weird and rather misleading is how young people are brought up viewing what it means to be a leader.

At least in my experience, while growing up, a strong leader was portrayed as someone who always took initiative in almost every situation; someone who always immediately knew the right thing to do; someone who was able to contribute in every single instance; someone who had charisma and was very vocal with his or her group members. I noticed certain individuals in my school and elsewhere who had those qualities, and so it seemed as if they were natural born leaders.

But I’m nothing like this

I tend to be pretty reserved in general, and I like to think and analyze about situations more than jumping into a decision right away. I don’t always take the initiative – in fact, most of the time, I usually let other people do whatever they want. I’m not and never have been interested in being “the leader” for the sake of being the leader – I have no interest in always directing the action or telling people what to do. I am interested in being a leader and in driving projects I have a vested interest in.

Was this bad? Could I still be a “leader”?

As someone who was in several leadership positions during high school, I felt as if I wasn’t doing as good a job as I could be. And so I experimented in different group activities. I tried being the outspoken, take action kind of leader in random situations, and while I initially felt a sense of accomplishment, it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t happy because it felt “forced”.

So I stopped, and I just continued leading in a way that felt right for me. I have always been more laid back in general. I like standing back and looking at entire situations as a whole. I like taking my time. I also like communication – I like hearing everyone’s ideas and facilitating discussion to find the best possible solution. I don’t think a fast solution is necessarily the best solution.

I also dislike negativity and cynicism – people don’t realize how much negativity reduces productivity, but it does. I’ve been in enough group situations to know that, so I always try to get everyone involved in a positive manner. When it comes to my personal leadership style, I believe that everyone involved should be encouraged to step up and lead when it’s right for them to do so (i.e. when the situation meets their leadership talents).

So I’m “Blue”

After being a recipient of the 2006 TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership, I joined the other new recipients for a few days in Toronto to celebrate and network with each other. Prior to the event, all of the recipients were asked to take an online survey which would analyze our leadership styles, and provide advice on how we can improve both our effectiveness as leaders, as well as help those we work with understand us better.

Each person ended up being labelled with an overall colour type. Reds were individuals who were the “take action” or “director” types. Yellows tend to work on inspiring and motivating others to action. Greens are usually individuals who use their leadership skills to offer help and support. Blues were people who preferred to sit back and observe situations. Of course, everyone had a varying degree of each of the colour types in their profile, but everyone tended to be more of one type than the rest.

Out of the 20 recipients there, I was the only one who was primarily a Blue. It’s not like I was surprised to be a Blue – I kind of figured that’s what I was going to be once the workshop presenter told us about the different colour types. But I guess I was a bit surprised when I found out no one else was a Blue.

But the fact of the matter was that at least for this leadership profile survey, the Blue “Observer” type was a legitimate leadership style, even if it wasn’t in the majority.

There is No “Right” Leadership Style

Like with many things in life, there is often no one “right” way to do things. We are all unique in many ways, and as such, we all tend to have different styles when it comes to certain activities. Leadership is no different.

Up to this point in my life, I have met many individuals with different leadership styles, and have come to realize that they are all successful in their own ways. Some of the most successful leaders that I have met are not the most vocal, some of them are, and some are in between. The same goes for many “recognized” leadership qualities.

I sort of see leadership styles as an extension of our personalities. I tend to be a more observant, thoughtful, introverted type of person, and it shows in my leadership style. It works for me, and while there are situations where being able to adapt a bit is important, I see no reason to change my overall style.

Realize that you have your own leadership style, and it’s not right or wrong – it’s just yours. Despite what some people might think, I believe that everyone has different leadership qualities, and some just tend to be more recognized than others – it doesn’t remove the fact that those qualities are there. You just need to be willing to accept your own sense of leadership for what it is.

The preceding article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at