How often do we ask ourselves if we have the right reasons for wanting the things we want? Pursuit of any goal driven by our full effort and intensity can be an awe-inspiring thing. One person or a group of us engaged in a full-fledged effort toward a point out in the future is often the beginning of history’s most remarkable moments.
But what if we want things for selfish reasons alone? What if we are engaged in roles, jobs, occupations solely for the reason of ‘doing our work’ or ‘earning a paycheck’? What about a company or a leader who is in it for the money or their ego or to ‘win’? Why are these kinds of empty, soulless value propositions often doomed to fail?
Leadership Must Be About More Than The Leader
On a national and global scale we don’t need to look very hard to find examples of leaders who seem to be in their roles in order to satisfy their own goals of self-satisfaction and aggrandizement. This isn’t a new condition. Since the beginning of our existence on Earth, much of this value disconnect comes from the search for validation, love, connection and worth which drives us all. These are understandable needs. The issues begin when a leader takes a role without having a mission, purpose and higher aim for what they hope to accomplish. If their actions are driven by profit seeking or a thirst for adoration or if their ascension to power is meant to satisfy a broken part of that person, that leader is merely a cardboard cut out. Leading isn’t about us as the leader. Leading is about those we lead and, by extension, our unified and collective achievement of our goals made possible through the direction that the leader can provide. Seems simple, doesn’t it? Sort of a ‘duh, of course’, you may be thinking.
So, why do so many leaders make it about themselves?
Decide On Your Mission Before You Decide On The Role
We all want to do well in life. We’d like to advance through our careers and it’s flattering when we are offered the chance to do so. We’d even say we worked for it and we deserve those promotions and perhaps we are right. But advancement and riches can’t be our only compensation or the motivation for us to pilot an organization is flimsy from the start. Some organizations have a mission or elevated purpose built in. Healthcare, national defense, law enforcement - these are all examples of occupations that come with a strong central purpose and elevated reason for existing. It stands to reason that leaders in these organizations can remain connected with a mission-driven philosophy without much effort.
But what if you sell widgets? What if your industry is less akin to the life-preserving variety? Well, we can still find purpose and cause in these roles. Even if you sell kazoos and funny party hats you should be focused on your commitment to bring joy to your customers and, if you’re the right kind of leader, bring value and growth to your employees. Any occupation or industry can be mission driven. As a leader of people - even one person - it is your responsibility to find the nobility in your occupation/business sector and infect your team with enthusiasm for why that philosophy matters. You can’t do that if you take a role for the title or the salary without asking yourself questions like, ‘How can I serve people and our organization from this role?’, ‘How will I grow in this role and pass my growth onto the people I lead?’, ‘How can I make things better by occupying this role?’. Have you ever worked for someone who you’re sure didn’t ask those questions before they took their jobs? How did it feel for you?
A Leader Doesn’t Choose - Their Followers Do
A superior officer, senior leader, manager or mentor doesn’t become any of these things by standing up and shouting “I’m in charge and I’m leading this place!”. That sounds silly, but, have you ever worked with managers who did the equivalent of just that? What these leaders don’t understand is they can’t choose to lead. None of us who has ever had authority took that authority or manifested it out of thin air. The best leaders understand one immensely powerful truth about leadership:
The follower chooses who they will permit to lead them. It is the role of the leader, on a daily basis, to reaffirm that the follower made the right choice.
You have smart people working for you. Probably brilliant, creative, incredibly capable people, in fact. Do you think they are susceptible to the sort of dynamic in which a line manager or senior leader lords over them in an oppressive ‘I’m Emperor Palpatine and you’re my minion, Darth Vader’ sort of way? They choose to work under your charge and there are a host of complex reasons they do so. Some of what they (and we) all want and need are practical concerns - compensation, benefits, etc. But these aren’t enough to renew the pact each day between that direct report and you as their manager. The skilled people in your organization want to feel they are connected to the mission. They want purpose. They want to feel pride for the work they do and their impact on their world. Are you giving them a clear pathway toward how to feel those powerful feelings every day? ‘I have a dream...’ and ‘We will go to moon…’ were visionary entreaties shared with millions of people in the form of overtures meant to say, ‘I believe we can go here and do this… Would you like to join me?’. And, millions did.
Have a vision, share it and ask your team to follow you. When tomorrow comes, ask them again.
Being Mission Driven Doesn’t Include The F Word
Perhaps the most prevalent and destructive reason for poor leadership is the ‘F’ word. Fear.
Fear drives so much of business - from Wall Street and valuations on the open market to the actions and strategies discussed in board and meeting rooms everywhere. Within any organization is anxiety of missing results, reporting a bad quarter, fouling up the merger or acquisition and so forth. These are real concerns and as heads of our organizations we can’t afford to be cavalier about results and pretend they don’t matter. But, sadly, the failure to foster a mission-driven leadership culture - one that has heart and character at its core - is often derived from much simpler fears. A manager’s fear of appearing inept, a department head who is nervous about their level of acumen. There are all kinds of reasons why leaders listen to that fear-driven voice in their heads and the approach with their teams becomes more about saving face than inclusion and building a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. From those first tendrils of fear-based management, it’s a fast downward spiral into over-directive, dictatorial styles that ultimately become the draconian cultures we all hope to avoid in our working worlds.
Recognize your strengths and be aware of your gaps. Don’t over focus or leverage either of them in such a way that your message to your teams becomes driven by threat, consequence, warnings or other tell tales of a fear-based style. Fear will cause your teams to look down at their shoes and curl their shoulders inward. If you have a hope of achieving your goals, you need your team to look upward and push their shoulders back, ready to take on anything that stands in their way.
How long has it been since you created time for some quiet private provocation about your mission? When was the last time you uplifted someone on your team by reminding them of their real purpose? How sure are you that everyone who works in your organization knows what your collective mission is?
Maybe it’s time to reaffirm your mission, for you, and for the talented people on your team.