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Unexpected Acts of Leadership: Foundational Stories

Here’s an overview of the characteristics shared by all unexpected acts of leadership, including a roundup of the stories that inspired this project.

April 09, 2019

We’ve discovered several inspiring examples of Unexpected Acts of Leadership (UALs) so far, and we’ve noticed they share certain defining characteristics. Here’s a quick overview of those characteristics and the foundational stories that started us on this journey.

Unexpected leadership

  • Going Above and Beyond. UALs are different from the leadership that arises when someone is officially charged to move the needle as part of his/her work role, either by title or assignment. In this way, the UAL concept highlights the changes and impact that one person (or a small group) can make, even when it is not their job to do so. Thus, it is unexpected, highly visible and often inspires others to step up to a problem that otherwise would go unaddressed. A great example: Assistant Gives a Voice to Least Powerful Faction on Campus
  • Personally Meaningful. Because it is not a part of a person’s job or role expectations, a UAL implies that he/she is tackling an issue that is personally meaningful. Often such issues are ones that no one else has acted on; where others appear resigned to accept the status quo. But when there is an emotional connection to the issue, it drives action and persistence in the face of obstacles. A great example: Our Beginning: Daycare Center Transforms South African Community
  • Benefitting Others. Despite the personal importance of a UAL, the act is not done strictly for the sake of one’s own interests. An unexpected leader is not self-serving; he/she acts out of meaning and purpose to benefit the people around them. A great example: Unexpected Leader Turns Landfill into Philharmonic
  • Creating Positive Change. A UAL leads to positive outcomes, in large part because the motivating issue is approached out of caring, love and service. This means that a UAL is not just about what someone does, but also about what someone produces (even if the result is delayed over time). It is really only about leadership when the actions produce a visible, lasting impact. Importantly, though, that impact can be local/small, or it can ripple outward to produce larger, transformational results.

This is just an overview: for a more detailed discussion of the boundary conditions for an UAL, see Home Run or Foul Ball: Boundaries of an Unexpected Act of Leadership.