If you’re not the captain of the ship, be the lighthouse that guides it.

Lighthouses serve to keep the ship safe. They are grounded and reliable. Their guiding light cuts through the darkness and mist with the deliberateness of a sharp knife. They don’t tell the ship captain what he wants to hear. They tell the ship captain what he needs to hear. They are immune to the whims and the emotions of the ship’s crew. Lighthouses keep everyone focused on the same goal—to keep the ship from running aground. Every ship needs a reliable lighthouse.

There’s a tragedy of human nature that has bothered me for some time. It’s that people tend to link their value to their status or position. If they are “the leader,” they carry themselves as a leader—with confidence and holding themselves (mostly) to a higher standard. That’s fine. But if they are aren’t “the leader,” most people tend to feel inferior, and think and act as such, holding themselves to a much lesser standard. This forces the leader to use precious resources to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Such a disparity in attitudes can lead to difficult and unnecessary situations within the team as the principal-agent problem comes into play. This is precisely why empowerment of every individual is a crucial element of good leadership.

But the leader—the captain of the ship, already has to worry about the direction of the ship, the speed and direction of the wind, the strength of the current, the oncoming storm, and cleanliness of the vessel. The mindset of each crewmember onboard, if it hasn’t already been addressed at the outset, often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Intangibles, like mindset, are critical to the team’s success but, since they cannot be measured easily, tend to be overlooked. This is why a lighthouse is essential.

The lighthouse is an invaluable navigational tool, and an example of what permissionless leadership looks like. While being the lighthouse in an organization is a role available to everyone, almost no one steps up into it. But, just as leadership isn’t something you strive for, just as the long game isn’t something you can just play, being the lighthouse isn’t a job you can simply take on. It’s a role you must live. It’s a byproduct of your mindset, of your diligence, and of your inherent dependability. To be the lighthouse:

You must have good judgement. Judgement is a critical skill. It is knowing the long-term external consequences of your decisions and actions. If you can demonstrate your ability to make good, reliable decisions on a consistent basis and stay accountable for each of them, you have good judgement.

You must lead from the front. By warning of jagged rocks and providing the light your ship needs on the darkest and stormiest of nights, you provide an invaluable service that no one else can or is willing to provide. Lead by example and take on risks so the rest of your team doesn’t have to.

You must hold yourself to a higher standard. A lighthouse is usually painted a different color than the land it sits on. If the land is dark, it’ll be painted white. If the land is light-colored like a beach, it must provide a contrast with a darker color. Similarly, contrary to human nature, you must carry yourself independent of your status. You must act and think like a leader. You must differentiate yourself so it is clear that your example is the one the leader should endorse, and the one everyone should follow. No matter what your status is, someone is always watching the example you set. Someone is always watching for the light you emit.

We spend a lot of time defining what it means to be a good leader. After all, good, principled leadership is what society desperately lacks, despite the overwhelming abundance of books and seminars on the subject. And while not everyone can be “the leader,” everyone has the capability of being the dependable lighthouse that the ship needs to avoid the jagged rocks that progress inevitably brings along with it. Being the lighthouse for your team can make you indispensable. If you cultivate good judgement, lead from the front, and always hold yourself to a higher standard, you’ll never have to worry about what your status or position suggests. People will naturally rely on you.

If you’re not the captain of the ship, be the lighthouse that guides it.

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