By Paula Redmann 

What defines a leader? Is it a title, the number of direct reports, being a celebrity, being “famous,” (whatever that means to you), years of success, a diploma, or a series of capitalized letters after a name? Trying to define leadership kind of distorts our understanding of what leadership is or where we find it. Leaders are at the top of the pyramid, and the rest of us slackers and free riders are at the bottom. Right? Really?

Let’s try this notion; that leaders don’t always have top billing. Their name isn’t necessarily on the screen, the letterhead, or the marquee, but they’re the go-to people, the one(s) you seek out  when something needs to get fixed, get corrected, talked about, held up, pushed out, or just done. These leaders aren’t in the spotlight. In fact, they’re often the silent, behind the scenes, in the shadows, just do the work and smile and quietly slip away leaders. They’re ninja leaders.

Ninja leaders are everyday people doing their every day jobs and doing it well every day. It’s not their title. It’s their action.

Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful entrepreneur and bestselling author says, “We’re living through a period right now where we have a lot of very smart people looking at math, and analytics, and efficiencies. I think those are all great things to take pride in, but I also think you need to put in the work. You can call out all the best business opportunities you want, but the bottom line is that nobody ever got paid to make snow angels.”

Gary understands ninja leaders, the leaders who get things done.

A dear ninja leader friend and mentor says the biggest leadership skill is this: show up. Show up simply means to be there, be engaged, be interested and interesting, and do the work.  

Some observations about ninja leaders all around us:

Law enforcement and first responders: You go into places we can’t or won’t. While we run away from the explosion, the fire, the bad guy or girl, or the danger, you run to it. In my world, police officers keep our parks safe for all to enjoy, and Ed and Missy from Animal Control gently collect the wild baby and mama kitties that set up camp in my yard. All of you are ninja leaders and heroes.  

Front desk professionals: You meet, greet, direct, help, answer, and listen. You make the rest of your organization look amazing. You remain calm as all ninja leaders do. You scoff at turbulent waters and deadlines. You have ninja skills of how-to, where-to, and when-to that are gold medal worthy.

Parks and recreation: Thank you ninja leaders who are coaches, officials, and all those who keep our parks and beautiful places clean. These are the parents who agree to coach their own kids or somebody else’s kids, officials who get disrespected, and all the dedicated maintenance staff. A former co-worker said my ideas were fine and brochures were “real pretty,” but his biggest concern as a manager was having a clean parking lot and restrooms for his customers. For all you ninjas that show up and clean up, thank you.

Schools: Alright, you amazing teachers and administrators do NOT take this wrong. Thank you for the multitudes of miracles and magic in the classroom. However, schools wouldn’t function without secretaries or janitors. Thanks for calling parents when a wee one is sick, keeping schedules and puke buckets within reach, opening up, locking up, and for keeping schools sparkly. See earlier reference to cleaner-uppers.

Friends: These ninja leaders form your tightest support net.They appear in the form of other parents who will confirm or deny that you’re one of THOSE parents. They are friends who can push you toward a happy ending or talk you off the ledge. These ninjas show up with coffee, adult beverages, or plants that needed dividing. They can stop for just a minute, or they park their carcass on your couch. They cry with and for you, ask you how you really are and wait for an answer. These ninjas have refrigerator rights.

Besides doing the actual work, ninja leaders say these things:

  • I don’t know. Let me find out.
  • I made a mistake.
  • Teach me about that.
  • How can we put your gifts to work?
  • I care.
  • How can I help?
  • What if we try this?
  • I’d like your opinion.
  • What should we do?

Ninja leaders also form circles, not lines. Lines mean, “I’m in front of you, which means you are behind me.” But circles mean, “We’re next to each other. Let’s get to work.”   

Paula Redmann

Paula Redmann is the Community Relations Manager for Bismarck Parks and Recreation District. She likes to run, walk, play, sing, putter in her yard, laugh with family and friends, and count her blessings. She married her high school sweetheart, Tom. They have two grown sons, Alexi and Max.