I remember—very vividly—a homework assignment we were given in a group coaching seminar many years ago: “Complete the sentence ‘To me, leadership means …’ by tomorrow, and tell us why you chose your sentence” We were to add no more than eight words to avoid waffle.
Sounds like a simple enough task, right? But can you think of a sentence? Right now? If you can’t, I encourage you to put your mind to it some time. The result may just surprise you.
The seminar was aimed at both seasoned and aspiring leaders. This was 16 years ago, and little did I know that this sentence would stick with me throughout my budding career, and how much it would shape my leader persona.
I sat down in my hotel room that evening, determined to get it right, and thought about what leadership really means to me. I’d attended quite a few seminars, I’d read books, and I had a keen interest in modern methods and approaches. Leading people was my cup of tea.
So I began by jotting down some key thoughts on my notepad. Here are some of them:
I could think of a lot of things that all seemed equally important, and I got a taste of just how difficult it is to prioritise and keep your focus. How were you supposed to cram the complexities of leadership all into one sentence? I went on like this for a good while until, eventually, I concluded that I was looking at a dead end. Then, bit by bit, it dawned on me why: I was so hellbent on the job, the tasks, the responsibilities—the doing it—I’d completely lost sight of why it’s done in the first place.
Once I’d managed to shift my focus to the meaning, the philosophy of leadership, putting my own creed into words was pretty straightforward. So I wrote my sentence down and, pleased with myself, went to bed. I was actually looking forward to the next morning. I had a hunch that my own interpretation of leadership does not necessarily map to the common image of leaders as being strong, dominant and powerful.
The next morning, when it was my turn to present my sentence, I said: “To me, leadership means helping the people I’m entrusted with succeed.” Not unexpectedly, some of the other participants were quite perplexed at what they just heard. And even more so when I went on to explain that, as a leader, I have not really succeeded until I’ve managed to become superfluous in day-to-day operations.
I’m pretty sure that some of my colleagues in the room decided to smile this away because “she’s a woman” (I was indeed the only one there), and didn’t really take me seriously. The trainer, too, was smiling. But his smile was genuine, there was no irony in it.
As the years passed, I’ve always stayed true to my philosophy, and successfully, too. What’s the point of leaders strutting around with puffed up feathers if they block out their team and won’t let it shine? This approach may deliver results in the short run, and I’ve met my share of executives who like to boost their egos rather than channel their efforts for the benefit of the company, let alone their employees.
In my book, leadership still is in essence a service to empower others. Make your employees, your team, your company shine. This way, you shine even brighter than you ever could alone.
Of course, even if you do embrace this philosophy, you still have to …
But whether or not you’re genuine and credible in doing so hinges on your own attitude towards leadership. And being genuine makes all the difference. It’s the ingredient that spurs employees to excel at what they do and stay true to your direction.