Think you can’t be a leader? Think again. It seems that most people are bystanders, in almost every situation in life, and are expecting you to lead.

Let’s play “What Would You Do?”

Situation A: Imagine you are walking down an empty street. There’s one other person walking across the street. That person falls over, writhing in pain. What do you do?

Situation B: Imagine you are walking down that same street. That same person is walking across the street, except there are 50 other strangers nearby as well. The same person falls over, writhing in pain. What do you do?

You might like to think you’d do the same thing in both situations—help the person up, call 911 if necessary, etc. But human psychology tells us otherwise. While most people would help the person in situation A, most people would NOT help that person in situation B. How could that be? Out of embarrassment? Out of indifference? Not quite. The reason is simply that there are 50 other people present who are also capable of helping, therefore, why bother? The problem is that if each of the 51 people in the scenario thinks the same way, then that unlucky person on the ground suffers even more. That is the essence of what is called the bystander effect—the greater the number of people witnessing distress, the less likely each individual will be to help. It’s not that most people are bad. It’s that most people expect others to take the lead.

Think back to when you were in a large college lecture hall. To the professor’s disappointment, less people were likely to raise their hand than if the class was held with fewer people in a more intimate setting. It’s not that most people have nothing to say. It’s that most people expect others to take the lead.

An unfortunate example of the bystander effect came on a busy Friday night at my restaurant. With about 120 guests, 30 staff on duty, and several more waiting at the front for a table, it was a packed house (pre-COVID). I was doing my typical managerial rounds when I noticed, from afar, an elderly lady sitting at a table of three, who seemed oddly still and quiet. I began to make my way over to her when she began to slump over. The two people at her table reacted how you would expect, but I knew I had to act quickly. Leaving nothing up to chance, I called 911 immediately and sprinted out of the restaurant and to the urgent care center (luckily across the street) to plead for help. Within minutes, there were paramedics at the restaurant to do CPR and save this woman’s life. It turns out, she hadn’t chewed her food fully and her airway was blocked. Luckily, she was okay, and the rest of the night went on smoothly.

As my mind usually does, I began to analyze what happened and how that event could have been avoided. What would have happened had I not taken quick, decisive action? With dozens of people in her vicinity, who would have taken action to save her instead? While I was relieved that the lady was okay, I was irritated at the lack of response from the dozens of people around her. It was the bystander effect in action. As the leader, I was expected to act. But what happens if there is no clear leader in a situation like that? Again, when faced with a distressing situation, most people will not act because they think others will.

If you look closely, this baffling human behavior appears in every part of life, whether critical or not. If you want to establish your reputation as a leader, think about all the non-life-threatening situations you’ve experienced where people chose not to act when something should have been done, or chose to stay silent when something should have been said. These are moments you need become acutely aware of when leadership is needed. These moments are golden opportunities for you to LEAD. And these opportunities are much more plentiful than you might think.

Next time you find yourself in a crowd of people, don’t be a bystander. Take a stand. Do the right thing.

Most people are expecting you to take the lead.

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