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.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.