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Leadership - Personal Foundations

In organizations leadership is thoughtfully defined as the capacity of an organization to create and achieve the vision of its desired future. This requires leadership at all levels of the organization along with systems and a culture that welcome that leadership, nourish it, guide it, and allow it to flourish. In other words, to allow the people of the organization to flourish.

My suggestion is that each of us as individuals, if we were so lucky to work for such a progressive and forward-looking organization, would benefit from skills of leadership – or as defined above the skills to create your own vision and realize it. What are those skills?

  1. Identify your own values. Every thoughtful organization will, from time to time, review their values with their current employees. If you have a sense of your own values, your contribution to this exercise will be more impactful. Even if you are between jobs or self-employed this step is the beginning. Use your favorite search engine and find a list of common values. Go through the list and pick your top 10. From there reduce that to your top 5 and prioritize them. This does not have to be fixed in stone but is guidance for you and helpful through your life.

  2. Create a vision of what your desired future will be. Every organization must go through this, and so should everyone. Built upon your values you determine who you want to be when you grow up, no matter your current age. You will benefit from updates on this, I suggest around every 5 years. The reason is that you are growing, learning, and evolving towards your desired future vision. Through this process you are more capable, can see more clearly, and updating based on that additional perspective is a good idea.

  3. This process requires some self-awareness, and willingness to accept and use feedback. Developing skill at receiving and interpreting feedback is critical and makes the previous two steps much more meaningful. I like the process of emailing 5 people who know you well. Ask them to tell you about a time when you shined – were your best, and about a time when you did not. Ask them to keep it to less than a page, but at least a paragraph.

  4. Learning is essential, the previous step can help you learn about yourself. Explicitly adding learning to any of your major goals is also useful. Decades ago, Tom Peters said “What skills will be required for tomorrow?  Nobody knows.   The important thing is to keep acquiring new ones.  We’re in an environment where education – for life, for everyone – is the game.” Constant learning and adaptation is essential.

  5. Being intentional is critical. A ship without a rudder can land at any port but cannot be counted on to land at any specific port, or to stay off sandbars and rocks. Your vision is a great resource. Is what you are doing today leading you toward your vision? Allowing for some playfulness and spontaneity, are most of your efforts aligned and leading you in the direction you have chosen?

  6. Setbacks are as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning. Learning to recognize and recover from setbacks is essential. A useful perspective on this has to do with learning as an explicit goal. If I set a goal of 50, and reach 30, perhaps I have failed. If I learned what worked, and what did not, and am better able to get to 50 the next time, I suggest you were successful. In business the Lisa computer is a great example of a tremendous failure, however what was learned from that failure spawned the MacIntosh – an unmitigated success. Learning turns setbacks into greater capacity to succeed – thus meeting our definition of leadership.

  7. Making plans. A vision without specific goals is a wish without energy. You have to learn to set goals, to make plans. A wise strategy here is to set SMART goals, and not too many. I also recommend more process goals, focused on who you want to become.

  8. Carrying out plans is the next step. Getting good at picking a few priorities and setting goals is great, but unless you develop systems that make monitoring and feedback consistent and frequent you are likely to lose focus and motivation. Building these into your day-to-day work is best, so it is not “one more thing”, it is simply a normal part of every day.

  9. Faith is often associated with religion or philosophy, but a version of it is essential in developing your leadership capacity. I will call it belief. Do you believe you have the skill, tenacity, and motivation to set and carry out your goals? If you don’t, you have a much steeper hill to climb. My suggestion, if your belief is weak, is to start small. Set small goals, aligned with your values and vision, and use the short-term success to build your belief in your capacity. If you fail, but learn, let that build your belief in your now improved and insightful capacity. All things in nature start out small (seeds, puppies), you should also.

  10. You are not alone. Developing the skill to look beyond your own experience for examples, inspiration, hope, commiseration, is good. We are a planet of nearly 8 billion people. How likely is it that somebody else has failed at withstanding temptation, failed in a relationship, failed in business, been fired, missed a deadline, or been passed over for a promotion? Reach out, learn from, and connect to others. You and they will be better off for it.

  11. Give yourself a break. Learning to not be derailed by mistakes, shortcomings, imperfections, lack of information or resources. These and more are normal parts of the human experience. Have you met any perfect people lately? Of course not, so neither are you. Be kind to yourself. I like the idea that your self-talk should be like that of a close friend, not your worst enemy. This could be a great early goal, to catch your self-talk and when it turns sour take a long breath and ask, what would my best friend say to me right now (or your mom or dad, or grandmother – whoever is that supportive and non-judgmental person in your life).

  12. Finally developing some skill around mindfulness is critical. I saw a Dr. Phil episode the other day where he commented to the guest (paraphrasing here) when we talk about mindfulness people think we are from outer space – as he twirled his finger up in the air. Think of it in purely lay terms – would you rather be accused of being mindful, or mindless? Obviously, you have a mind and using that mind in thoughtful ways that allow you to be the leader of your own life only makes sense. In this light some daily practice – a minute to start is great - to pause, and shut out the world is easy and literally anyone can do it. It can be as simple as closing your eyes and focusing on your breath, pausing to give thanks each day, prayer, meditation, or pondering. The benefits are tremendous, especially as you expand your one minute to longer periods, you know, two minutes or even three (you should be smiling now).

Can you see how your development of these leadership skills will help increase your capacity to create and achieve your own vision for your future? Can you see how consistent and aligned they are with the process an organization must follow to do the same? A company is simply a group of individuals aligned around some shared purpose, so the principles are consistent, though the specific practices must be adapted for groups. I hope this is helpful for you. Good luck in your journey, and it is a journey. The younger you are when you start, the better, just like compound interest. Having said that, it is never too late to start, never. So, won't you start today?


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