Strengths are an interesting thing… for many of us, they are
the traits, characteristics and skills that we are sure we do well. Strengths
are what we boast about, where we have pride and feel accomplishment. In
reality, we occasionally fool ourselves into a false sense of our strengths.
The strengths we see in ourselves in some situations suddenly become a weakness
in other circumstances – or at best a hindrance. Those things about ourselves
that we can always rely on become vulnerabilities and challenges; when we are
forced to rely on others, our strengths sometimes get in the way.
Strengths, at best, are only good in a moment – that precise
instance when everything perfectly aligns, and we get to be the hero allowing
our strengths to shine through. However, at most times in our lives and
leadership journey, we need to rely less on our strengths and instead rely on
the strengths of others. Success depends more on our relationships than on our
internal need to show our strength. There is an African word that speaks to oneness
among others and our common humanity: Ubuntu.
Literally translated, it means “I am, because you are.” Leadership is
recognizing that strength is in our common humanity and in how we exist through
George Bernard Shaw stated it this way, “Life isn’t about
finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Our leadership journey should
be about seeking balance with each other and with the world. We discover our
strengths through our relationships with others. I recently had a wilderness
leadership experience that made me think about my strengths and my need to rely
on others. At the top of a ropes course exercise, I was tested. Not from a fear
of heights or from a fear of falling, but from something far deeper. Maybe it
was trust, maybe it was courage or maybe some implicit bias, but something
caused me to freeze. But in an instant, my partner took control, looked me in
the eyes and calmed my fears. Telling me to hold her tight, we completed the
exercise through her calming voice and strong determination.
At that precise moment, my partner’s strengths shined, and
she was the hero. Our challenge is to always be looking for the hero’s in our
One of my
guilty pleasures is America’s Got Talent,
a reality television show. In this show, one former judge regularly talked about
looking for the WOW factor in the acts that are performing – he was looking to be
completely blown away. The WOW factor is simply a distinct appeal that an
individual or an object has on others. For the leader, this translates into an
impressive display of leadership acumen and skill. But how do you find the WOW
factor in your leadership? It’s easy… simply consider three things to make you
appeal to others: practice makes perfect, knowledge is power, and just do it.
Practice Makes Perfect
I love sports
and particularly college football. The excitement of Saturday afternoon in the
fall is something I look forward to. But, according to the NFL, only 3.4% of
all college football players make it to the pro ranks. To be sure, one reason
why these elite few reach the pinnacle of their sport is through practice. According
to Martha Graham, “Practice
means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of
vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection
desired.” While this sounds like the life of a professional athlete,
it is also the life of an everyday leader. Perfection is hard to accomplish but
worthy of our effort. As leaders, we influence others to accomplish things
greater than any of us could achieve individually… we strive toward a common vision.
Practicing leadership may not make us perfect leaders, but it will make us
perfectly prepared for leading.
Knowledge is Power
historically gained through intentional study or by experience. We have often
attributed knowledge to those who have been around the longest or to those we
consider the smartest. But knowledge is no longer the domain of a privileged few. We
recognize that everyone around us brings knowledge and that all of this knowledge
is valuable in making decisions. But Indian philosopher Krishnamurti thought of
knowledge this way, “To know is to be ignorant. Not to know is the beginning of
wisdom.” As leaders, we too often confuse knowledge with wisdom. While it is
important to consider the thoughts and ideas of our team – their knowledge – it
is more important to be aware of what we don’t know. Leadership is about balancing
emotions with reason to make good decisions. When we focus only on the
information in front of us, we may not be acting as wisely as we can.
Just Do It
this phrase a standard part of our vocabulary and I venture to say that as a
leader, you have uttered this phrase at least once when trying to get others to
follow along. However, we too often get caught up in the act of getting others
to “just do it” and often forget to follow our own advice. Philip J. Eby suggests
we put too much thought trying to find the “why” in what are doing. We should instead
stop trying and start doing. In other words, don’t over-think the problem,
allow motivation to occur naturally and see what happens. Leadership
expert John Maxwell puts it this way, “The whole idea of motivation is a trap.
Forget motivation. Just do it. Exercise, lose weight, test your blood sugar, or
whatever. Do it without motivation. And then, guess what? After you start doing
the thing, that's when the motivation comes and makes it easy for you to keep
on doing it.” When you are self-motivated, you become the leader that others
want to follow.
Even though the relationship between leadership appeal
and performance has been challenged, I contend when we have a distinct influence
on others we are more effective as leaders. When we are more practiced as leaders,
wiser leaders and more motivated leaders, we have more influence. Imagine there
was a reality television show for leaders and the judges were looking for the
WOW factor in your leadership… how would you rate?
Shhh… yes, you. The one in the corner (office). If you
are the leader, you are doing a great job of hiding it. While we sometimes
accuse others of failing to exhibit the qualities and traits we expect of
leaders, often we are the ones hiding our leadership. Sometimes, our leadership
is a well-kept secret.
When I am not feeling particularly leader-worthy, I find
myself avoiding others and evading my responsibilities. Then it hits me… I am
not acting like the leader I want to be. Maybe it’s time to face the reality
that you are not always the leader that you think you are. Sometimes you
retreat into hiding and your leadership is nowhere to be seen. Maybe this is
temporary… or maybe not!
As I speak to and work with leaders, I have discovered
three common issues that tend to mask leadership. Your leadership may be a
well-kept secret if you are selfish, closed-minded or disengaged. The following
three questions serve to test the transparency of our leadership. I wonder
which of these issues most affects your leadership?
you a selfish leader? Leadership is influence and we achieve
this through relationships. When we put our needs before those of the team we
abandon the relationship. Our focus is inward and we are no longer generous with
our time and talents, we become desensitized to others and their needs. Martin
Luther King, Jr. expressed it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will
walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive
selfishness.” When we are selfish, our actions no longer align with the
expectations of our role and our leadership becomes destructive.
you a closed-minded leader? Leadership is inclusive and
we achieve this by listening to and respecting the ideas others bring to the
table. When we find ourselves becoming intolerant and unreceptive to new ideas
we put the team at risk. We lose our humility, begin to make poor decisions and
ultimately our confidence can be impacted. We become less approachable and
others begin to write us off. Businessman Bo Bennett suggested “The only place
opportunity cannot be found is in a closed-minded person.” When we stop
considering new ideas and listening to others, we close the door on new
opportunities and growth.
you a disengaged leader? Leadership is connection and we achieve
this by engaging with others. When we find ourselves reacting to problems and
being unprepared to lead we may sever the bond between leader and team. Our
communication suffers, we lose vision and clarity and we start blaming others for
the problems. We begin to appear insincere and less authentic. Steve Jobs said
it best, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” If we are
disengaged from our team, none of us are doing great work.
It has been said that the hallmark of a great
leader is the questions she asks. I have proposed three questions that we need
to ask ourselves to ensure our leadership is fully available to those we serve. When
we lead from a place of selfishness, closed-mindedness and disengagement, we
hide the best part of who we are and lose the ability to lead effectively. When we are selfless, we lead with influence, we are inclusive and we engage others. What did
you discover when you asked yourself these three questions?
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