When I was going through selection and training for a particular SEAL team, one of the first things the instructors did was send the class a message about leadership: they cut the majority of the officers and senior enlisted from leadership positions and replaced them with junior members. The reason behind this was to demonstrate that who you are is more important than what you are.
What you are refers to your rank, position or title, which is different than what you can do. What you can do is about your capacity to lead, such as making decisions under duress, visualizing the “end game,” maintaining situational awareness and communicating context. Who you are refers to your character — humility, integrity, openness to new ideas, service to others.
Now, remember that this is the military where hierarchy, taking orders, structure and process abound over creative thinking and problem-solving. Right? At least that’s what people tend to think.
The truth is, not once during my 13 years in special operations did I ever hear “do it, that’s an order.” Not once did we (SEALs) not ask the question, “Why are we doing this mission?” We might not have liked every mission we conducted, but we certainly understood why we were doing it because knowing the complete picture enabled us to make on-the-ground decisions. Context provides clarity and when you’re clear on what success looks like and where the finishing line is, then you know what decisions you need to make to get there.
Leadership isn’t a title and it’s not a position. It’s not tenure and it’s not rank. Leadership is about capacity — being the type of person who’s able and willing to learn, be courageous, tackle difficulty and question the status quo.
Here are three leadership capacities to focus on:
When you lead you take steps in a particular direction, and steps require courage. One of the best examples of courageous leadership that comes to mind is Domino’s Pizza. Around 2009 Domino’s had a problem: their pizza was terrible. This is the same as showing up to a gunfight and your gun not working. For Domino’s, the problem wasn’t just the taste of their pizza, but also the brand. Ryan Berman, Chief Creative Officer of the i.d.e.a brand cites Russell Weiner, President of Domino’s USA in his forthcoming book Return On Courage, as saying, “We did not rank high on product scores. But believe it or not, people thought our product tasted better when it was in somebody else’s box…All every American wanted was for someone to just stand up and tell ‘em the truth, to listen to their problem and to do the right thing.” So, Domino’s made a courageous decision to turn itself around with their bold “Oh Yes We Did” campaign, and by doing so, shared an important message: that they will listen to their customers and fix any problems. Today, the company has outperformed behemoths such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google as its stock has skyrocketed from nine dollars to over 180 today.
However, courage doesn’t exist without clarity.
When you’re clear about what’s important to you and why, you don’t waste time trying to search for answers. You know exactly what you need to do to execute. With clarity, there’s no hesitation, no second-guessing, no wondering if you’re making the right decision, no ambiguity over what’s expected of you. You get work done because you’re clear on what success looks like. When you’re clear, you’re bulletproof.
More than anything, clarity creates fulfillment and alignment — for the individual, the team and the organization. When you’re unclear about your values or what you want to do at work or in life, that’s when you feel misaligned, imbalanced. Greater clarity leads to greater engagement, and when more people are engaged, more work gets accomplished.
However, you only gain clarity through curiosity.
Leadership is a two-sided coin. Good leaders know when to talk and provide direction but they also know when to listen, learn and lead with curiosity. When you lead with curiosity you not only forge greater clarity but you also gain insight into how others think, which informs your next move (or question) as a leader. Simple questions such as, “What do you think?”, “How might we…?”, “What do you believe is the best way to achieve…?” are powerful tools you can use at any moment to learn and lead simultaneously.
You can lead “up,” you can lead “down,” you can lead yourself and you can lead others. It doesn’t matter where you are, only what you do and why you do it.