I recently had an illuminating conversation about leadership with an acquaintance of mine named Laura. Laura's beloved boss — a woman with the rare combination of strong leadership skills and compassion — had just left the organization where they worked. I asked Laura whether she would now step into her boss' shoes.
"I am not qualified for that job yet. Maybe in a few years," she told me. "I just hope we get a good leader." She crossed her fingers on both hands, shaking them in the air for emphasis.
Laura, like many of us, yearns for a leader who will recognize her efforts, create opportunities for her to grow and build a strong team that works with a sense of mission and purpose.
Strong leaders — those who blend vision, charisma, commitment towards the organization, and empathy towards employees — are rare. Everyday, we read about leaders who abuse their positions of authority. You know, those corporate CEOs flouting lavish lifestyles while shortchanging employees on insurance and other basic benefits. Then there are the church leaders who victimize the very individuals they are called to serve. Or the government officials building their personal political platforms at the expense of their constituents.
It's no wonder that most people are cynical about corporations, religious institutions and government. But how can we regain a sense of power when outcomes are largely outside of our control? The answer is actually quite simple: we must become the leaders for whom we desperately yearn.
This does not mean we have to assume roles for which we do not feel qualified, or work harder at the expense of our personal life. But we must recognize that this simple, though not necessarily easy, answer. That is, we must reframe our perspective in these four deliberate ways:
1. Commit to a simple goal, and do it exceedingly well.
Don't over-complicate what you need to do to achieve your dreams. Goals can be ambitious and simple at the same time. In order to be the leader you can be, it's essential to commit to doing really, really good work. But keep your sense of what you need to do streamline and focused.
I love the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film follows 85-year old Jiro Ono--considered by many to be the world's greatest sushi chef. Although he has been studying his craft for 76 years, Ono says, "All I want to do is make better sushi." He exhibits painstaking attention for every detail — picking the rice, buying the fish, training his staff — all in an effort to improve his simple, albeit ambitious, goal. How can we pursue our life's work in a way that is mentally fulfilling and engaging? Ono says: "Once you decide on your occupation...you must dedicate your life to mastering your skill."
So approach work like a noble craftsman. Work diligently to get stronger, smarter and better — little by little — on a daily basis.
2. Appreciate all efforts you see around you equally.
Make a habit of acknowledging and sincerely praising the efforts of those who have made your life better. Value the contributions of everyone — the dry cleaner, dog walker, hairdresser, and mail-person — equally. Make it your mission to uplift those around you. Famed basketball coach John Wooden said, "People want to believe you are sincerely interested in them as a person. Not just for what they can do for you. It always comes back to courtesy, politeness and consideration." Similarly, being polite and considerate involves remembering the importance of forgiveness!
3. Do not complain. Find the lesson instead.
In the beginning of my career, I had a boss who I nicknamed "My Nemesis." Ruthlessly ambitious, she drove staff with an iron fist. Once, she followed me into the bathroom, barking orders on the other side of the stall while I was, ahem, attending to my personal business.
In hindsight, I should have dubbed her "The Teacher." She made me a better lawyer (if for no other reason than my unadulterated fear of her criticism). She taught me how to set limits. But, most importantly, she taught me first-hand how not to be a leader. I learned that the quickest way to demotivate people is to devalue them.
Malcolm X said, "There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time."
4. Ruthlessly tame your ego.
Without introspection, it is easy for leaders to succumb to their egos. Rarely told "no," leaders can become vulnerable to their own hype that they are smarter, more charismatic and more powerful than everyone else in the room.
Humility matters. Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing Christine Lagard, Director of the International Monetary Fund, speak. In spite of her powerful position, she is and down-to-earth. She said, "When I sit in meetings and things are very tense, I sometimes think to myself, 'Come on, you know, there's life and there's death and there is love.' And all that ego business is nonsense compared to that."
Remain open. Listen to others. Dedicate yourself to finding wisdom in all places from which it springs. I'd love to hear the lessons you've learned about leadership in your own life. Please feel free to share in the comments below.
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