Leadership purpose has been identified as the differential between a good leader and a great leader (https://hbr.org/2014/05/from-purpose-to-impact). Having leadership purpose has helped individuals anchor themselves in something that is meaningful not just for them, but for others as well. It has been linked to consistent and positive business outcomes, as well as giving leaders a greater sense of personal well being. No small feat when you consider what most leaders face on a daily basis.
This is not news, purpose is something that is hugely beneficial to everyone, whether you are a leader or not. Yet, when asked the question “what gets you out of bed in the mornings?” most people struggle to describe their purpose in work and in life. Obviously we have some basic needs; the need to earn income, look after family, etc. As wonderful as our families and colleagues are, that isn’t the only thing that gets most people’s professional (or personal) juices flowing.
I had the opportunity to speak at a networking event where we were exploring the learning cliff that accompanies many people’s first promotion into a role where they are accountable for leading others. The best comparison I could find was one related to parenting; many of us go into parenting for the first time preparing ourselves by speaking with others, reading books, articles and websites. Ask any couple who is close to the arrival of their first child and they will likely tell you that they are “ready” - and they are. Then the baby comes. Ask them the same question a few days, or even weeks, after the arrival of baby number one and you may get an entirely different answer. The beautiful thing with babies is they are an exciting and highly anticipated event, not just for the parents, but for everyone in their lives. There is a built-in community of support ready and waiting to help (sometimes even without being asked). New parents experience visits from close family and friends, offers of child care, gifts, baby showers, even help with things like home-cooked meals and house cleaning. So the steep learning “cliff” that new parents experience is often eased by the love and support of others.
Now compare this to becoming a manager for the first time. The first part is very similar…people interested in becoming leaders with managerial accountability in organizations do a lot of research, book reading, speaking with others, forming ideas of the kind of leader they want to be. However, once they are promoted/hired into the role, there exists the same steep climb from theory into reality…but without the community and emotional support. Often it can feel as if you have just won a lottery you should never have been playing in the first place. New leaders may feel as if they are in over their heads, and that they are going to be “found out” at any moment (and removed from their new role). With these feelings come some interesting behaviours, particularly in North America where leaders are supposed to have “solutions” and are responsible for the success of a team or initiative. This way of thinking doesn’t lend itself to working collaboratively with others in a community of support where everyone shares responsibility for idea generation, shaping options and next steps. Often, new leaders follow a strategy of “fake it until you make it”. You can’t continually ask your peers for support, they are busy (and assume you have things in hand). Same thing with your manager, although there is often a lot of untapped support there that could be leveraged, if you have the courage to do so. As for working directly with your staff on sorting out what needs to happen next, that can often result in disappointment as they remark “that is what you get paid the big bucks to do!”. Or something similar.
No one is throwing you a “leadership shower” where they give you great advice, support or commitments to be there when you have questions or a crisis. So it is up to each of us to find this support in our leadership journey, and to ascend the learning cliff of leadership in the best ways we can. It helps to have purpose.
So how do we find our leadership purpose? It’s something that comes from deep within in each of us, something that is part of our moral fabric, the way we like to be treated and the way we treat others, that is deeply anchored in who we are. It is formed in part from our commitment to something larger than ourselves. Essentially it isn’t just what you do as a leader, it is both how you like to do it and why you like to do it. This can seem very daunting, so it helps to have guiding principle that shapes how you want to be as a leader and, not unlike some famous organizations, it helps to define that with a simple statement. Steve Jobs wanted “to put a dent in the universe”; others I have come across are “to be the strong voice of reason in a chaotic world” (this example is from a Project Manger) or “a gentle nudge in the direction of courage” (from the a CEO of a charity). If you notice, these statements are aspirational, and they are meant to be. If you are trying to think of one for yourself keep in mind it is not a mission, vision or values statement. No one jumps out of bed “to be the best leader possible utilizing all the assets and resources at my disposal in a responsible manner”. Really, no one is getting out of bed to do that (even if that is in fact what the majority of their day is comprised of). However, you may rise and shine to “provide compassion in the face of hardship” as one person determined her leadership purpose to be (she is a leader at a hospital). While the snappy one-liner seems easy to come up with, note it should be a reflection of something you have aspired to be in the way you have conducted yourself from the time you were old enough to know to conduct yourself. This isn’t just something you are inventing on the spot to impress others, it’s something you've been shaping yourself towards over time, a deep resonance of your inner self, the reason you go out and put forward effort day after day. It is a reflection of something you are, but large enough that you could develop yourself within in it over your lifetime, and never get bored.
Leadership is often looked at as something to attain, or achieve; the penultimate measure of self actualization. In reality, it is something that should consistently broaden and deepen our skills, our emotional intelligence and our commitment to others, while supporting our own well being. Anyone, in any position, can be a leader; accountability for management is only imbued by organizations, leadership is something we all have a choice to exercise. It is also a calling, something we aspire to achieve mastery in, rather than success. If we look at the difference, success is a specific result; a goal or an objective. Once attained, that bar is often moved out, giving you something new to work towards. Over time it can feel like a unattainable horizon, or a treadmill. Mastery, on the other hand, is the achievement of many things, all of which enable us to do more and to do it better (broaden and deepen), providing wellbeing and a sense of accomplishment, while never taking for granted that you have nothing left to learn. Rather than feeling like a treadmill, mastery has the power to continually empower our confidence, energy and capacity to keep learning. But it does not happen overnight, or with the advent of a snappy one-liner (though the guidance and reminder can help). It takes time, patience, compassion and practice, learning from mistakes and finding the courage to keep on trying when we know what it is we are meant to do.
Leadership is like wandering, putting curiosity first to continually seek iterative changes and evolution in how you approach things, learning as you go and sharing what you know with others. The journey is never easy nor complete, but to be on it is the greatest privilege you may ever experience.
A large component of practicing healthy emotional intelligence is the ability to look beyond the day-to-day scenery, stepping back to see what else may be at play. All too often we have so much going on in our day, that stopping to contextualize any of it (or re-contextualize it, as things evolve) is a luxury. Yet, that is where you tap into a rich vein that oozes potential.
A common theme for anyone working on his or her leadership skills is looking at what is wanted versus what is needed. Shrewdly, I had one person ask me "What is the difference? I believe I am doing what my company asks of me, so it is both wanted and needed!"; certainly, but is that based on perception or reality? Truthfully none of us can sit idly by and assume we've got it all handled all the time…not as parents, spouses, friends or as leaders…and that we should expect great results forever. Things change, sometimes subtly over time, sometimes in a great big thrust. There is an iterative process that takes place when we encounter something new; we engage a different part of our brains than when we complete routine activities. This causes us to use different neural pathways, allowing us to test, try, learn (repeat) and then apply our new knowledge until we feel we have mastered a task (assuming this is something we want to master). Then, unintentionally, the "learning" stops, and with it, the testing, curiosity, open-mindedness and iterative process that allowed us to re-contextualize and pay attention to the nuances that made up many subtle realities of what we have learned, turning them into "scenery".
The net effect of this can be felt when something around us changes; we hire new staff or receive a new boss who points out what they are seeing from the perspective of their "fresh eyes". Especially when it is different from our own perspective of our work; "I noticed when you get stern in meetings you lean forward and come off a bit condescending". Perhaps your employer is merging with another, causing upheaval in the way you are used to doing things, or you are getting feedback from others with a different tone and timber to it than in the past (hints of exasperation, less patient). Subtle, or direct, there are often indications to help you understand that how you did things before may not be the best approach going forward. This can cause a lot of confusion, even frustration as we are thrust into a new understanding - one that helps us to see that doing what we have always done may now provide less than optimal results. Another way this manifests itself is when we have limited tools at our disposal, so an approach that works really well in a particular circumstance, or with a particular team member, doesn't work effectively in all the things we are accountable for, leaving us at a loss as to what to do about it.
Take some time to examine your assumptions; there is value in looking at what you may want versus what is being called for (need). An example can be found in a leader who prides himself on his efficiency; meetings are short, to the point and efficient, a style that he feels is the best way to make good use of everyone's time. Yet, he has experienced turnover in his leadership team and exit interviews with departing staff indicate they find him cold and feel they are not getting all the information they need to be able to confidently excel in their roles. What did this leader want? What was needed? Sometimes, what we value the most in leadership (and in life) is not what is actually called for. A very collaborative leader who is always there to help when asked can often be a good thing. But only if it meets the expressed needs of the team; this style of leader may collaborate on ideas, but not give clear direction because he or she wants consensus from others first (rather than providing others with what was needed – a way forward). Our best intentions, what we value and what we find beneficial, are not always going to fit what our organizations need most, nor the needs of others. Ensuring we understand this allows us to remain alert to evolving circumstances, asking questions, "checking in" with others around us to ensure we have fully captured what is needed, versus what we may want to give.
Are you leading from a place of comfort, or a place of discernment? Do you actively seek to understand what is most needed versus moving swiftly into what you want to be known for, what is easiest to do or what is "safe"? It is a very subtle distinction, one that can be hard to catch because when we operate from a place of expertise, comfort or best intentions, it feels right. However, without discernment, without asking questions or seeking other perspectives and being openly curious you may miss the key elements, which can guide you to the right action, and never know it. Wisdom, then, is the act of staying open minded, allowing you to be able to test the difference between want and need.
There is an interesting TEDTalk “Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work” by Jason Fried (https://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work?language=en) and part of his main point is that meetings are a complete waste of time. It is a radical thought, one you may or may not agree with, but is worth considering. The way meetings are used today fulfill a variety of business needs; cascade of information, updating people to be transparent, reporting results against a plan, etc. In the majority of the meetings we attend today (business meetings or meetings we attend as volunteers or community participants) it is for the dissemination of information, not the furthering of our effectiveness or organizational pursuits. In these meetings we are often given information that is readily available to us in another format (on-line, in a published report or via verbal quick de-brief, etc.). Participation is passive, with attendees only able to directly engage in the “question and answer” period or through interrupting the speaker.
This is the traditional “all-staff meeting” or you may even want to call it a “presentation” as most meetings use some form of presentation software to provide handy reference points and key data. This is what most of us “grew up with” in our careers and is heavily practiced today. Even with the more intimate (and prevalent) team meetings where the point is usually information share and contextualizing, how often are you called upon to provide content in those meetings as a participant? Contribute, yes, but actual content? How many times have you missed a meeting, but were not concerned because you knew a slide deck with all the data would be shared? In fact the way we use presentation software has morphed; it was never originally meant to be a tool to document meeting content (only to provide interesting guiding points, keeping both speaker and audience on pace together), but that is how many organizations use it today. We’ve all seen (or been guilty of) putting generous amounts of information on each slide because this is no longer only a presentation tool, often this software is used as a capture tool, allowing data and content to be shared with no further effort (when was the last time you needed to read meeting minutes?). It can be difficult to sit patiently through all those verbose slides as a participant (especially if your meeting is being driven by someone reading them aloud). So here is a question for you; do you think the majority of the meetings you attend are a good use of time (and not just your time, anyone’s time)? To take this one step further, do you think the basic tenants of how we hold meetings today will be in practice when our children (think Millennials and beyond) are in the midst of their careers?
Not likely. Meetings hold a systemic bias that silences many important resources. Today there is a lot of emphasis on public speaking skills in meetings. Gifted meeting conveners and presenters stand out, making even the most mundane data sound scintillating, peppering their patter with anecdotes and juicy bits that are not on the slides or in the handouts. Even as participants, we often feel we are expected to speak well when we contribute. The skills required to hold a meeting participants’ attention are consider “leadership” skills; group meetings have always favoured extroverts, or those who can master traits of extroversion. For those who are comfortable speaking publically (either as the organizer/presenter or as a participant) this shows up early, and when cultivated, draws them into this type of work over their career. It can often feel as if introverts need not apply. It also supports another interesting meeting phenomenon; when there isn’t strong meeting “hygiene” in place, the loudest voice in the room flavours all the decisions (or makes them). We’ve all been in those meetings where the participants who are most comfortable with public participation take over. Sometimes it is expected that those most comfortable with this role will just do it, sometimes it’s more of a meeting “hijack” by a strong personality. Results vary. Group meetings that were meant to be a “democracy” become a “meritocracy”, enabling roughly 20% of the participants to contribute consistently. So, roughly 20% of your team, and ultimately your organization, are contributing 80% of the time. Think about the numbers, keep track in your meetings, this is not random. Nor is it utilizing the full potential of your team or organization; some of your most gifted employees are not extroverts, but when your meeting formats only provide space for the quick-responding and outgoing, you are not enabling everyone’s full potential. What “best practice” said we had to address the majority of our deepest business concerns in the time spent in rooms together? Is that where you do your best thinking? As an employee, how often have you gone back after a meeting to give voice to an idea or a thought? Most of us assume that someone has thought of it already, or that if the idea had merit it would have been brought forward. Most of us follow in the trench dug by leaders who use a traditional communication style structured by meetings.
It is not likely that the next generation is going to want to take that flawed blueprint with them into the most productive era of their careers. But not all meetings are like this. Sometimes, the goal of the meeting is the dissemination of information to provide context, enabling those with whom we are meeting to understand the direction of work to foster better understanding and alignment of next steps, enabling more autonomy, clearer decisions and stronger outcomes. Sometimes, with gifted leaders (and more often with those who have nothing to lose) meetings are held for the sole purpose of coming up with ideas. So what is the difference between a meeting where we are given information, and one where we are given information or the permission we need to empower our work? Only one makes you think. In fact the future of communicative leadership is likely going to be based less on how well you can make an argument or present, and more on how consistently you foster thinking.
Another concept that the next generation will make better use of then those of us in leadership today is diversity. It’s a long held leadership aspiration to include as many perspectives in decision making as possible. The more heads the better when trying to make well-rounded decisions that take into account layers and facets of complex concerns. Diversity has also been proven to be a game changer, capturing both salient facts and nuances, leading to stronger outcomes. But it is more than ensuring your workforce and teams are diverse, it is also about creating an environment where you can leverage everyone’s potential through contribution. How do you break through that persistent 20% of active participants, bringing it to a reliably consistent 80%? Conventional thinking would have you believe it is about how to run effective meetings and be a modern communicator. While that approach is valuable, and builds several aspects of important leadership skills, it does not acknowledge that you can’t get to that deeper leveraging of the skills and abilities on your team by doing the same thing, only more efficiently. In reality, to boost those numbers you need to do something different. You need to know when to stop talking and make space for conversations that allow everyone to think and provide content in a time span that is conducive to really soaking in what they are being asked to generate. You need to leverage all the voices at your disposal; introverts and extroverts, new staff and seasoned staff, people new to your culture and those who’ve grown up in it. In short, you need to learn how to drive conversations that are allowed to evolve over time (a few days, a week), enabling an iterative cycle of learning and application that provides real results.
As leaders this is quite a pivot – one that requires us to be prepared to shift some key aspects of how we make decisions to another paradigm…a paradigm where we as leaders are no longer accountable for solutions, but for outcomes. In North American business culture leaders are supposed to have answers. Yet it is this thinking that enables us to only leverage 20% of the brain trust in our organizations, and even then, mostly in service to validating or strengthening a pre-determined way forward, not helping us to fully explore what viable options are possible. Think about the types of solutions one or two brains produce. Now, how about 10 or 30? This isn’t a free-for-all generating chaos, this is asking people to think, taking into account salient factors, leveraging guiding principles like your organizations’ mission, vision and values, and to then generate ideas (contributing innovative thinking) in service to producing stronger options. You already know what the outcomes need to be (shrink margins, offer more/higher quality product, reduce time to market, etc.). Do you always take the route that will help you explore as many options as possible? Or do you see a potential path forward and explore only that instead?
What if we were to stop having meetings, and started having conversations? Conversations that provided key data, like desired outcomes and context, empowering all our employees to think about options and viable solutions that don’t begin with the narrow lens of one or two starting points (steering them in a particular direction) but giving them a green field to explore and the time to think. Future leadership will require strong communication skills, that is not in doubt. But it will also require a transformation in how we approach leveraging our workforces, trusting that the answers are always present when we start asking the right questions and engaging staff in conversations. When we enable collaboration, idea generation, innovative thinking and solutions we enable stronger outcomes. Future leadership will require the trust and ability to make our staff and organizations think and the intelligence to wisely use the content (and potential) they bring forward.