You don’t have to be a leader of others. Whether you became a leader by choice or by chance, you didn’t have to go that route. The world is full of highly successful individual contributors. But you opted in to a leadership role. Your role may come with formal authority, or you could be an informal leader, leading primarily from example and influence. Either way, you are a leader in your organization. People look to you for leadership.
So why do you lead? Why did you choose leadership as the life for you? Do you know?
I remember when I was promoted into my first formal leadership role. Six months in, one of my direct reports complained to my manager, saying I had ruined her self-esteem. At my manager’s suggestion, I spent 90 minutes in a conference room listening to every complaint, taking page after page of notes of everything I’d done wrong. Basically, in nearly every meeting or exchange I had with her, she heard criticism — as if she couldn’t do anything right. As my manager had instructed, when she finished telling me about her experience, I thanked her and said I would consider everything she said and then follow up. I met with my manager, and we reviewed the notes. I cried. It upset me to think I’d screwed up that bad. If 10% of what she said was true, then I had some work to do.
My manager asked me to think about why I wanted to be supervisor — not just why I’d put my name in the hat for the position, but who I wanted to be as a leader and what impact I wanted to have. Clearly, I’d had some unintended impact. But I wasn’t clear about my intentions — so how could anyone else be?
That day, I started working on my why.
My first drafts were full of flowery statements about making a difference for others and leaving a legacy, while also proving myself and my worth so I could make more money. In the end, one version stuck. It’s still my purpose today: I choose to live a life of leadership to help you claim the life you want to have (no kidding, the whole kit and caboodle.) I believe we learn some of the most challenging and important lessons in life through the practice of leadership, both of self and others.
My why is my compass, reminding me of my own true north. I use my why to stay grounded. It helps me find motivation on days when it seems hard to come by (yes, I have days like that, too). And I’m always reading, learning, and adding resources to my toolkit that can help me achieve my purpose — which is, of course, to help you achieve yours. My why is the foundation for my vision; my vision is the foundation for my goals, metrics, and affirmations, both for my personal and professional life.
Which brings me back to my original question: Why do you lead?
If you haven’t put words to paper, I encourage you to do so. Get clear about your reasons for choosing leadership. What is the impact you want to have? What is the legacy you want to leave?
In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Steven Covey suggests doing a eulogy exercise. You write your own eulogy from three or four different perspectives. What would someone at work say? Or a member of your family? What about a good friend? Or a community member? Would their messages be consistent? How do you want to leave things? What do you hope they will say about you? There aren’t any wrong answers, just YOUR answers. And whatever you are hoping for, you can look inside those eulogies for hints about your why.
When you’ve done the work and written out your why, the final step is to keep it in front of you. Write it on a sticky note or note card and post it where you can see it every day. And then make a point of reading it — out loud, if possible — every day. Better if you do it more than once. Read it — then close your eyes and lean into how it feels. Let the energy get into your bones. And then go about your day from that place. I promise you it will make a difference. The more consistent you are in your practice, the better.
Whether you are a leader by choice or by chance, knowing your why will make you better.
”Making and keeping promises to ourselves precedes making and keeping promises to others…. it is futile to put personality ahead of character, to try to improve relationships with others before improving ourselves.”Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People