Her name, I think, was Elsa. I spent only an hour with her, but she had a really significant impact on me and how I think about leadership. She was an Austrian woman in her 80s and a concentration camp survivor. She didn’t tell me she was a survivor, but when I sat down next to her I saw her concentration camp number tattooed on her wrist.
So I started talking to her about how she came to be in New Zealand, and though I really wanted to talk to her about how could she possibly survive that kind of experience, I didn’t feel it was anywhere near appropriate to ask her about what that experience was like.
Instead, we spoke in a general kind of way about man’s inhumanity to man, and how she left Europe because there were too many bad memories for her. I only spoke to Elsa for an hour but it is the first and only time in my life that I’ve been in awe of somebody. I was in awe of her strength of character, her resilience, and the fact that she was such an incredible survivor.
The big lesson for me, and one that’s had so much impact on me, is that I came to understand for the first time what character actually meant.
When I looked at her and her life, I realized that up to that point I’d been playing small in my own life. I thought I was making a difference. I thought I was doing some good things in the world, and I was, but I was still playing small. I realized I could actually step up and make a much bigger contribution than I had been making up until that point.
It is our life experience that helps to shape who we are, but it’s how we choose to respond to our experience that makes us a leader.
The Leadership Competency Trap
Unfortunately, too may leadership ‘gurus’ try to reduce leadership to a set of competencies, saying that if we just get enough leaders who fit the competency profile, and if we get them demonstrate these competencies often enough, then everything’s going to be alright.
It’s just not the case.
You can train a leader to be great at displaying a certain level of competency, but that doesn’t make them a leader. If you don’t take the time to talk to people about character, about integrity, about leading a meaningful life for the good of others then you only ever have a shadow of a leader and not the real thing..
My own goal is to help leaders to liberate their capacity to have an amazing impact in the world. But though I have a very definite view of what good leadership actually looks like, I am not going to specify 7 easy rules for being an outstanding leader. Not only does that create doubt in leaders when they don't fit the rules, but more often than not, there is a fundamental mismatch between the rules and what you actually need to succeed in addressing the challenges of your world.
Instead, it is more important to become powerfully aware of what leaderships means for you. That is, what you might want to create, how you want to create it, how you can liberate your own talents and capacities, and how you can liberate the capacities and talents of those that you’re working with in the service of what matters most.
And, for me, if we’re in the leadership role, but not genuinely committed to making a significant difference in the world, then why bother?
Unfortunately, if you do some research on the definition of leadership, you’ll find hundreds, even thousands, of different ways of defining leadership. This doesn’t really help the leader at the coalface.
Let me make this really simple. Leadership means:
Being the best person you can be in the service of the goals and aspirations of your family, organisation or community.
If you continue to work on being the best person you can be in the service of the goals and aspirations of others, then you’re doing a pretty good job as a leader.
That’s not to say that you are perfect, or not still a work in progress. Rather, it implies that you are committed to learning and becoming better over time and doing so because you care about the success and well being of others.
In the end, it is all about relationships. We can’t get away from the fact that leadership is about relationships. It’s not about structures and organizational charts. It’s about relationship. So the key is this: how can you be the best that you can be in your relationships so that you have the foundation for influencing others so that you can more easily help make good things happen in your world.
And in doing so, three things really matter: Impact, Legacy and Life.
I’ve been working with leadership since my late 20s. One of the things I’ve noticed is that though people in leadership roles are hired to have an impact, most don’t have anywhere near the kind of impact that the organization was hoping they’d have.
Because if we’re in a leadership role, that’s what we need to be doing. We’re not hired to have busyness. We’re not hired to look like we’re having an impact. It’s about actually having an impact.
In talking about legacy, I don’t mean legacy in a grandiose kind of way, where you are somehow put up on the same kind of level as Gandhi or Mother Theresa. When I talk about a leaders legacy, I’m talking about leaving something behind you that continues to add value and benefit for others. So it might be for the leader that steps into your role after you’re gone, or might be for the ongoing success of your organization or the community in relation to making their world a better place.
And finally, living a life. Unfortunately, there’s too many leaders that I come across that have lost their happiness or quality of life. They get caught up in the ‘mania of leadership’ and end up doing way too many hours ( and are often ineffective over most of those hours) and they’re not spending enough time with the people they love.
Even worse, because they’re so fatigued, they stop being connected to their own intuition and their ability to be creative and make good judgments suffers.
The truth is that is completely possible for a leader to have an impact, leave a legacy and live a happy and balanced life.
The Need For Leadership
You might have noticed that the world is changing, and it seems to be changing even more quickly as time goes on. I think the speed of technological change, the amount of change that’s happening in our organization, our communities, and the speed of social change. Moreover, globally, the speed of population growth is astounding.
Given that the world is changing rapidly, many of our traditional ways of approaching leadership and solving problems aren’t quite as useful as they once were, and we actually need to develop the capacity as leaders to find ways of developing different kinds of solutions to meet the needs and challenges we’re actually facing.
One of the things I see mentioned quite a lot is the so-called leadership crisis. There are a lot of commentators writing about leadership, saying, “Where are all our leaders? How are we going to solve all our problems? We don’t have enough leaders.”
This is plain wrong. We do have enough leaders, but we don’t necessarily identify them in the right way and we don’t develop them in the right way to help them be successful.
The leaders we need are already here. Now, I don’t know whether you define yourself as a leader yet, but one of the things that I do know is when you make a conscious choice to commit to leadership, it’s amazing the talents and capacity that you can liberate in yourself, and liberate in others, to have a positive impact around you.
I’ve been running programs I don’t know how many years, but quite often when I get a group of leaders together for the first time, there’ll be people in the room going, “Well, you know, I might be in a leadership role, but I don’t actually know if I’m a real leader because I make mistakes.” Or “I don’t look like the leaders that are held up to me as being real leaders.” Or “When I get home at night, I often feel like a fraud and I am just waiting for someone to tell me I am rubbish.”
Unfortunately, in our society today we’re being socialized to pay more attention to what’s not working and what’s missing rather than what we might be doing well and where our gifts and talents might be. Therefore, one of the challenges of leadership is that we actually don’t get enough feedback about the value of leadership or what we’re actually doing well as leaders. There are precious few people around who can give us developmental feedback that can actually both help us grow, and honor the commitment that we’ve made to be successful as leaders.
Fortunately, your imperfections absolutely matter and in a good way. What I mean by that is the things who make you who you are, your experience, your mistakes, your strengths, and your weaknesses, are all important in what makes you unique as a leader. They feed into your unique way of thinking and your operating in your style.
There’s no one way of being successful as a leader. Any book out there that says there are ten indisputable laws of leadership is just garbage. Those laws might be right for one person, or it may even be right for a group of people, but they won’t be right for you and your world at this time in history with the unique challenges that you’re facing.
Your imperfections are actually the fuel that helps you develop and grow. They help you to learn about what it is that you need to understand and develop in yourself so that you can have the kind of influence and impact that you want to have.
There’s a North American psychologist called Pamela Butler who says “The glittering coin of perfection has on its underside loathing and self-hate.” On any kind of level, perfection is not useful for someone who’s in a leadership role. It is better to shift the yardstick to doing the best we can with the time and resources available to us. Because when we think about leadership it’s actually an apprenticeship without end. You don’t go to leadership finishing school and suddenly you’re the best leader that’s ever walked on the planet. You keep learning, keep being confronted by challenges and you keep developing, growing and improving. If you try to be perfect, it will only slow your experimentation, learning and ultimately, your success.
Your world needs you as you are – a work in progress who is trying to do his or her best.. To the extent to which you don’t attempt to step up to your full stature as a leader, the world is a poorer place. Stepping up to your stature as a leader is one of the most important things that you can do.
The Power Of Choice
Sometimes we’re chosen to lead by being appointed to a leadership role. Sometimes we might choose to lead when we see something in the world that needs to change and we decide we’re going to do something about it. Sometimes it might be both.
Now whether you are chosen to lead or choose to lead, you still need to make a commitment to leadership and being the best leader that you can be. And this matters because when we don’t make the commitment, when we stand on this side of the commitment line and look at being a better leader or making more progress as a leader, on the other side of the commitment line, our talents remain dormant.
However, as soon we step across the line and say to ourselves, “Okay, I know I’m not perfect. I know I don’t know everything. I know there’s a lot I still have to learn as a leader, but I’m going to do the best I can.” Not only do you have greater access to your talents, but the things you most need to learn, to become a better leader, start presenting themselves very quickly. These opportunities never arrive when you remain a spectator staring at the commitment line.
When you cross the commitment line you are also following your calling. That is, your higher purpose for leadership or ‘the bigger reason why’ behind why leadership matters to you. This is the fuel that drives your leadership.
When you listen to your leadership calling and then think about expressing it fully, there’s a huge opportunity for you as an individual, in terms of being able to look back in your life and go, “Well, you know, that was a life well-lived, and I’m really pleased with the way that I made a contribution in these areas.” Not only that, you can bring greater meaning to the lives of the people that you’re working with and working through so they too lead richer lives. And you can create a generation of leaders behind you who takes their cues from what you model and demonstrate and how you assist others to develop, grow and succeed.
Now I don’t know about you but when I get to the end of my life and I’m sitting on my rocking chair and the sun’s going down, I can’t think of anything more important than to know that I contributed to creating a generation of people that are doing great things out in the world.
Every leader can make the choice to go out and give life to their most important dreams and aspirations and to make a profound difference in the organizations and communities that really matter to them. To create a trail of great relationships, great projects, great changes, great initiatives, for the benefit of others.
The majority of leaders don’t choose this. What will you choose?