We chase after leadership as though it were something to be conquered or tamed. Just when we think we have leading others fully within our control, a situation arises that demands something very different from us. Suddenly we’re left untethered, feeling lonely and unsure of how to respond. In these extraordinary moments of reality, our over-confidence once again turns to humility. We’re reminded that leadership is a practice and that mastery of it can never be fully achieved.
Through my own work on myself as a leader, as well as the work I’ve done with others, I’ve learned that while every leader’s journey is paved with unique circumstances, there is a small handful of universal truths. These truths, when practiced, offer valuable guidance to all aspiring leaders at any level of an organization who genuinely desire to be better leaders today than they were yesterday.
The Five Universal Truths of Leadership:
Truth #1: Leadership is a journey, not a destination.
Try as we may, none of us will never fully conquer leadership. Leadership is hard and it’s unconquerable. We must be willing to accept its Sisyphean nature and, yet, have the stamina to get back up each day, dust ourselves off and start rolling our rock once again. Finding this quality of perseverance deep within ourselves is fundamental to our ability to lead. Leadership is not a “check-the-box” transaction that takes place Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 and 5. It’s a practice that is honed and strengthened over decades of dedication and, at any given moment, is the byproduct of a lifetime of committed learning.
Truth #2: Leadership stands for something.
A leader has to stand for something, or, as the saying goes, you’ll fall for anything. What we stand for needs to be clear, unconditional and believable. We can’t borrow someone else’s values and call them our own. They must come from deep within our beings—they must to be core to who we are. When we’re unable to draw upon the wisdom of our personal values to guide us—for example, when a tough decision needs to be made, or a difficult conversation needs to be had—we find ourselves stuck, searching endlessly for the right thing to do or say. Without a clear set values clearly and relentlessly communicated, we risk transmitting mixed messages much like a radio signal not fully tuned in. The impact: frustration and confusion on the part of others who will waste precious time trying to figure us out. As a leader, it’s okay to be wrong. It’s not okay to be confusing.
Truth #3: Leadership is hard.
Author James O’Toole, in his book Leadership from A to Z, said it best: “Of all the activities that take place in an organization, leadership is by far the hardest and most important.” He’s right.
Many underestimate the headwinds leaders must be willing to endure or the faith and stamina leading demands. For example, taking action on a decision that is sure to bring about controversy, yet having faith that, despite the storm it may cause, it’s still the right thing to do. This is particularly hard for those who are preoccupied by being liked or have an aversion to conflict.
Truth #4: Leadership is a belief in others.
A few years ago, I was working with an executive of a California-based company. I asked her to share with me her definition of leadership. It was clear how seriously she took my question. She stared out the window with an intense focus. After a few moments passed, she responded with a precise and thoughtful point of view: “Leadership is being the kind of person who treats people as though they already were what they’re capable of becoming.” Wow. Think about that.
Those we aspire to lead are able to perform to their full potential only when they believe we believe in them and are genuinely interested in their development and well-being. If we don’t believe in our people, or if we’ve lost faith in them, they know it. If we don’t believe in our people, we are fool-hearted to think they believe in us. In this context, followership is not possible, only compliance.
Truth #5: Leadership is a mindset.
A big title and a corner office do not make us leaders. Though these accoutrements often come with the territory, the implied endorsement they convey is in no way an accurate measure of a person’s ability to lead. People at every level of an organization have the ability to influence others in a positive way if they choose to do so. People at every level of an organization can choose to invest of themselves in others by taking a personal interest in a colleague, helping them to see something differently or in a more productive way.
In this respect, leadership is more of a mindset than a formal designation. No one needs permission to lead. Leadership is not a transaction: it’s a never-ending developmental process.