What Makes You a Leader?

 “Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning.” ~ Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? (Harvard Business Review Press, 2006)

If you want to drive a high-performance organization, you must find ways to make employee performance meaningful. Carrots and sticks may work in some situations, but leaders must engage hearts and minds to truly excite people to give their all.

There is a deepening disenchantment with traditional-style management. We are increasingly suspicious of the skilled and charismatic boss who echoes corporate mission statements and jargon. The search for authenticity in those who lead us has never been more pressing.

While great results aren’t achieved by inspirational leadership alone, they may not be possible without it. Employees choose to come to work and give their best—or not. Leaders who excel at capturing hearts, minds and souls provide purpose, meaning and motivation.

Know Your Leadership Purpose

How can we expect our leaders to provide a sense of meaning and purpose when they themselves struggle with self-knowledge, purpose and identity?

“We’ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose,” confirm Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook in “From Purpose to Impact,” published in the May 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. “Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.”

When interviewed at work about what gives their lives meaning, executives parrot the latest corporate propaganda:

  • “Increasing shareholder value”
  • “Delighting customers”
  • “Becoming the best in product innovation”
  • “Delivering worldwide more ‘X’ than our competitors”

When asked the same questions at home, executives admit to profound symptoms of meaninglessness, work-related stress and dysfunctional family lives. They typically fall back on generic and nebulous catchphrases when asked to describe their purpose:

  • “Help others excel”
  • “Ensure success”
  • “Empower my people”

Just as problematic, hardly any have clear plans for translating purpose into action.

Defining “Purpose”

 “Your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive,” note Craig and Snook.

It’s not what you do, but how you do your job and why—the strengths and passions you bring to the table, no matter where you’re seated. While you may express your purpose in different ways and contexts, it’s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you.

Begin to find your purpose by:

  1. Developing Your Stories. Mine your life story for common threads and major themes. Identify your core strengths, values and passions—the pursuits that energize you and bring you joy.
  2. Working with a Coach or Mentor. It’s almost impossible to identify your leadership purpose alone. You need help from people who act as mirrors. Retain the services of an experienced executive coach, or find a qualified mentor. You can also seek feedback from a small group of trustworthy peers.
  3. Writing a statement of purpose. After completing the first two steps, take a shot at crafting a clear, concise and declarative statement of purpose: “My leadership purpose is _______.” The words in your statement must be your own. Don’t pull buzzwords or clichés from a business book or article. Your statement must capture your essence and call you to action.

The Quest for Authenticity

The demand for authentic leadership has never been more evident. As hierarchies dissolve, only truly authentic leaders can fill the void. Power, trust and followership depend on leaders who know their purpose, express it in words and deeds, and help others find and implement their own raison d’être.

Without a clearly articulated purpose, meaning is elusive. People may know what’s expected of them, but they may not recognize why they should care. Leaders who know themselves and what truly matters express authenticity and inspire others to follow suit. Authentic leadership has become the most prized organizational and individual asset.

Unique Leadership Qualities

While theories abound about good leaders’ characteristics and traits, our search for the right qualities may be all wrong. There may not be any universal leadership characteristics. What works for one person may not work for another.

Instead, we need to pinpoint each aspiring leader’s distinctive assets and effectively mobilize them. What’s special about each leader? How can individual strengths be deployed as powerful leadership skills?

Reflect on the following questions from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?:

  1. Which personal differences form the basis of your leadership capability?
  2. Which personal values and vision do you hold for those you aspire to lead?
  3. Which personal weaknesses do you reveal to those you lead?
  4. In which ways do you develop authentic relationships with those you lead?
  5. How well are you able to read different contexts?
  6. When influencing others, do you conform enough?
  7. When influencing others, do you differentiate yourself enough?
  8. Do you know when to hold back and when to connect with others on common ground?
  9. How well do you manage social distance?
  10. How well do you express tough empathy, offering people what they need rather than what they want?
  11. How well do you communicate your personal differences, your weaknesses, your values and vision?
  12. Do you consistently express authenticity across different roles, situations and audiences?

Coaching is a great way to turn reflection into action. Get in touch with me here or on LinkedIn or Twitter and let’s talk.

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