Stepping Up to the Challenge

UPDATED: March 5, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 5, 2009

Like you, I’ve read dozens and dozens of books on leadership. I’ve coached executives and entrepreneurs to be better leaders for more than a decade. There are so many theories out there about how to be a good leader, it is downright overwhelming.

Leadership actually boils down to a few simple concepts. And, much to my surprise, I witnessed it firsthand just the other day. I have three kids, all under the age of 9. Before the bus arrives at 8 in the morning, I’m more mom than entrepreneur; orchestrating breakfast and backpacks; making sure they make the bus commands most of my time.

But last Monday, I woke up and realized I couldn’t get out of bed. Honestly. I was sick. And I’m never sick. I was full-on flu sick and completely incapacitated. Without even thinking, I figured my husband, Chris, would handle the kids. Thank God for my husband. Until I roll over to realize he’s not home. He’s got his own business to run. Great. Now what?

If I’d had the strength, I would have barked orders and tried to enlist the help of my 9-year-old daughter. I was too exhausted even for that. I’m embarrassed to say, I just fell back to sleep.

When I opened my eyes again, the kids were in front of me. Dressed. All three of them. Even though I’m sick, I’m suspicious. “What’s going on?” I ask in a tone I can only hope they thought was genuine.

"A true leader steps up without being asked. And that inspries others to find their greatness."

My 9-year-old, Sawyer, speaks for the group: “We made you a cup of green tea. Don’t worry, I didn’t turn on the stove; I used the microwave.” I cautiously accept the offering, wondering what they want. I might be sick, but I’m not stupid. “I heard you throwing up in the bathroom so I got everyone ready. We still have 10 minutes to the bus,” Sawyer continued.

My mind was racing. What’s the shift? What happened to the daughter I have to coerce to get ready every morning? And, more important, how did she manage to motivate an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old?

The next day, when I wasn’t feeling as feverish, I told Chris what I had witnessed. He just said, “Our daughter’s a natural-born leader.” I was skeptical. “For a leader she’s a horrible follower.”

Then it occurred to me: A good leader isn’t a great follower. In fact, leadership is all about not waiting for instruction. It’s about stepping up to the challenge and leading by example—exactly what Sawyer had done. I had this leadership thing all wrong.

She got her brother and sister ready, from getting dressed to making sure everything they needed was in their backpacks. She orchestrated the pouring of cereal and milk. She made me a cup of tea. Without being coerced, without even being asked, she stepped up. I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

I learned from my daughter this simple fact: You lead by example. A true leader simply steps up without being asked—the rest just comes with the job. And stepping up inspires others to find their greatness. Admittedly, that’s a stretch when we are talking about putting a tea bag into a hot cup of water, but the ability to take control is awe-inspiring— at any age.

So what kind of leader are you going to be today? What can you step up and do? Who can you inspire? What example can you set?

In this economy, every business needs a strong leader. Don’t wait to be asked. You’ll be shocked at how great it makes you feel—not to mention those around you. Everyone appreciates a hot cup of tea right when it is needed most.

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Mel Robbins is a contributing editor to SUCCESS magazine, best-selling author, CNN commentator, creator of the “5 Second Rule” and the busiest female motivational speaker in the world. To find out more, visit her website: To follow her on Twitter: