For a long time, I believed that leadership was about being smart, strong and confident. A good leader was someone who knew it all and told other people what to do. Someone who was persuasive and charismatic and could convince an audience to do things in a certain way. Being always right, in control and having the capacity to bring that rightness to others. Someone who could speak eloquently about big ideas and inspire an entire room. Someone like this:
But as I started to be more interested in leadership and observed the leadership behaviors in my own environment, while also embarking on a leadership journey myself, I found out that I had many distorted beliefs and misconceptions about what leadership was and wasn’t.
People around me often tend to judge leaders by the same observable behavior and “tip of the iceberg” qualities: title, power, credentials, confidence, and achievements. But fewer people take enough time to see what’s beneath the water level. I found out gradually (and sometimes painfully) that leadership was less about power, glamour and appearance and more about empowering and engaging others, drive results and move things forward. What makes leadership so hard is exactly what people don’t see. To me, a leader was more like this:
Despite all the attention that leadership development is getting today, with thousands of MBA and in-company programs promising to turn everyone into a great leader, employees around the world feel more disappointed and disengaged at work every year. The shift we’ve seen happening in the last years towards more flexibility and hybrid work, requires rethinking and reframing what we know about leadership.
A recent Gallup study has shown that the top five reasons why people experience burnout are: unfair treatment, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of support and unreasonable time pressure. What all these five reasons have in common is leadership. And it’s tempting to draw the conclusion that all we need to do is to send managers to more leadership training. This is a trap because it follows the old paradigm about leadership. It implies that leadership is the higher position, the title, and the power over others.
But what if we focused on leadership behavior, rather than hierarchy and we would start training people at all levels of the organization to embrace a leadership mindset?
Are leaders born or made?
Extensive studies and thousands of books written on leadership throughout the years, have demonstrated again and again that leadership is not something we are born with, but something we chose to become. While there are certain qualities that are innate, and could give us a head start, more than 70% of leadership qualities, are learned through experiences.
Leadership is not about big titles, status, power, or hierarchy in an organization. It’s about purpose, courage, accountability, and engaging others for a greater good.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown defines a leader as:
“Anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential. Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It's about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.”
Ultimately, it’s about results and positive outcomes that make the world a bit better and energize others to improve. The big question is, who can learn to be a leader? And my bet is, everyone. I really believe that everyone can lead if there is willingness and desire to improve, learn and contribute to something outside oneself. When we are self-absorbed and focused solely on ourselves, there’s little room and little time to invest in a greater purpose. Once we find that purpose and meaning in what we do, we can also develop the right skills and qualities that can make us a better leader. And it all starts with our personal leadership and believing in change.
The 3 cornerstones of personal leadership
I spent many hours thinking and observing behaviors that I thought were signs of leadership. I made lists, categories, mind maps, I read dozens of books and followed leadership stories. I became extremely self-aware about my own behavior and actions, while reflecting on my results and areas of improvement. What I concluded so far, is that there are three main elements that are indispensable for leadership behavior.
1. Having a purpose
Whether we talk about personal leadership (engaging ourselves to take action that moves us in the right direction), or leading others to achieve a common goal, being a leader means having an aspiration and a higher purpose worth putting effort and time in. A purpose brings meaning to what we do and makes us act with a clear intention.
To be able to handle change and face the inevitable challenges that life throws at us, we need a changeless sense of alignment between who we are, what we value and what we do.
Finding one’s purpose and mission is not something that happens overnight. It’s a process that can take months and years. It’s trial and error, accumulating experiences, building on successes, and learning from failure. It starts with self-awareness, understanding our personality traits, drivers, values, principles, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. Having a purpose not only helps us do everything with intent but it also eases the agony of taking the right decision when the choices are difficult.
Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, believed that striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in human beings. When we lack meaning, suffering and pain are unbearable and lead to despair. However, if we have a higher purpose and can find meaning in life, hardships and suffering will be met with resilience and strength to keep on going. What kept Frankl alive, after losing his wife, parents and brother in the concentration camps and seeing human despair in action every minute of the day, was his belief that he had a mission to accomplish, to help other people find their meaning. Logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy he founded, describes the search for a life's meaning as the central human motivational force.
2. Inspire for action
Having a purpose and a vision without doing something to materialize it, doesn’t mean anything. The ability to paint the future has to do with creativity, being a visionary and having strategic thinking. But if we are not able to act in the present and make small steps towards that vision, it will only remain an illusion.
One of the most important qualities of a leader is to be able to articulate the purpose and to inspire others to act for that common goal. To do that, it’s not only essential to be able to communicate very well, but we need to be able to engage and connect to others in a meaningful way.
Communication doesn’t mean one way expression, sending a message and expect others to conform. It means connecting with others, collaborating, and committing to act towards a common goal.
If we want to inspire others to act alongside with us, we need to listen more than talk. We need to understand what others want, see them for who they truly are, be accountable and hold others accountable at the same time. We need to have the courage to be present, committed, and credible. The gap between what we say and what we do should be minimal if we want to lead by example and walk the talk.
3. Have positive impact
At the end of the day, what matters is what we leave behind. During our small existence on this short journey called life, we should try to add a little bit of value, it doesn’t matter how small. It doesn’t even have to be anything material. If we made someone else’s day a bit more joyful because we thanked them and they smiled back, it’s a positive impact. And if we cannot leave the world better than we found it, at least we should not harm it.
What we do every day says everything about who we are and what we believe in. Our actions, our behaviors can either create something or break it. When we just live our days out of inertia, without a direction and a higher purpose, we tend to focus more on the negatives, and we have a hard time finding the energy and motivation to do what’s right for us and others. What should I focus on first, how to prioritize among so many obligations and demands?
Commitment, competence, discipline, and trustworthy relationships is what sets great leadership apart and these are qualities made visible through action.
I often spend time in the garden, just looking at the old linden tree we have in the backyard. It inspires me in many ways and gives me perspective when I am at a crossroad. I see it as an old wizard, a Gandalf who has the power to show you the way, just by starring into your eyes and not saying anything. I sometimes see my own leadership journey in this tree. To become grounded and self-confident, we need strong roots, we need to know who we are. Then, we need a strong trunk, character, that will help us during difficult times and keep up on the right path. But in the end, to really make a difference, we need to branch out, explore and create things that are visible to others. Have the courage to branch outside ourselves and show up in the world.
Leadership is a choice
So yes, I really believe in my bet. Everyone can lead. But only if one chooses to do so.
Nobody can make us leaders, we become one by having the courage to put ourselves out there and accept that we might fail.
Our self awarenss and attitude when facing the biggest challenges and difficulties will determine if we are up to the task or not. Of course, we need skills and confidence and abilities we might not have yet. But with the right mindset, we can get there, step by step. We skill ourselves up and set the goals that take us in the right direction. Leading ourselves and leading others into a better future.
Where do I start?
You start precisely from where you are now. There’s one small exercise you can do as a warmup. Don't try to do it in one sitting, you can answer the questions at different times, in sessions of 30 minutes. You will need a sheet of paper and a pen.
Part 1. Start by drawing a dot in the middle of a page and write “I am here”. Then think about someone you admire, someone who inspires you and write that name on top of the page.
Then ask yourself these questions and write the answers down:
How did their journey look like?
How did they get where they are now?
What are three behaviors you admire in that person?
What do you think she did differently than you?
What qualities and skills does she have, that you don’t?
The answer to your last question is your area of improvement, and you can already take a next step and draw an action plan with 3 things you can do as of today.
Part 2. Think about someone who looks up to you, someone you believe could benefit from your experience and support. What do you know that this person doesn’t and how could you inspire them? This is your area of contribution, and again, you can define a very clear step by step action plan.
The model is simple, but not easy and it requires part action, part reflection.
Leadership is a journey with ups and down, trials and errors and many crossroads where you’ll need to rethink what you’re doing. It’s a process of becoming. When we think about leaders, we think about the others who lead us, and not about ourselves, what we could do to change something around us. But leadership requires top down action as well as bottom up. Leadership is a mindset and it’s visible in our day-to-day actions. It’s in the way we ask questions, in the way we communicate our intentions, in the way we relate with the people around us, it’s in the value we created at the end of the day. I believe that we can demystify the misconception that nobody wants to lead. Nobody wants to lead when we have the wrong image of what a leader is and what leadership means. But that’s what the journey is all about.
Are you up for the challenge?
P.S. I would love to hear what you think that leadership is or isn’t. Did you ever had any ideas that ended up being myths? Write me a short email at email@example.com.
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