Executives everywhere are having to re-evaluate their purpose and re-establish their resolve, building a new set of muscles to lead. True leadership is being the author of your own story, whilst staying true to your values. Holding on to that central purpose, that constant in a sea of changes, will allow leaders to thrive, even as the rulebooks are being rewritten before our eyes.
16 August 2022 • 4 min read
“It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” – Warren E. Buffett
The tide is going out and it really doesn’t look good these days. Whatever version of “authorities” that is supposed to be guiding us in this time doesn’t have a clear direction. Even Disney can’t escape the tide.
I know, as I am helping the C-suite in a number of organizations, they are humbled. Each executive is being required to find a place inside themself they never had to before. They are building a new set of muscles to lead – and so can you.
The key is to realize that at the core of the word “authority” is the word “author.” We are all learning in real time when it works to allow someone else to author our journey, and when we need to be in the driver’s seat.
Managing is about reading the manual. Leading is about writing the story as you discover the truth.
Scary thought, isn’t it? Managing is about reading the manual and following it. Truly leading is about being the author and writing the story as you discover the truth. All of us are now here in this hybrid, post-Covid-19 (we hope), everyone-changing-jobs, adapting-to-agile-ways-of-working-and-living, Ukrainian-crisis, world. The word “author” is also at the core of the word “authentic”. That gives us a path to follow.
Fifteen years ago, I collaborated with Bill George to help launch the Authentic Leadership Movement. Much of what we discovered applies directly to the challenge of finding our authorship at this moment. And there is a new twist.
When I am working with leaders, I often ask them to create their definition of an Authentic Leader. Without fail, five notable characteristics emerge regularly:
1. The strength to show one’s vulnerability
2. Setting others up for success
3. Having a strong internal moral compass
4. Delivering sustainable long-term business results
5. A true sense of purpose.
Often the moments in which we were the most challenged are the ones that provide the missing key. Leaders learn that on the other side of the journey into their own past, there is a deep well of insight waiting.
We find our authenticity and our authorship when we review some of the most challenging times in our lives. Often the moments in which we were the most challenged are the ones that provide the missing key. Leaders learn that on the other side of the journey into their own past, there is a deep well of insight waiting that only they can discover.
When we step back and unpack these events and how we turned the corner, the stories reveal a leader who had to author their path forward. These are stories in which our basic assumptions about who we are and how we relate to the world are “reset.” We discover a level of resilience that we didn’t know we had. At some point, we lead ourselves out of the desert and into the Promised Land.
This is where you find your authorship in times of great uncertainty. It’s all within you: you will need to dig deep and connect to those times when there was no map and how you then made it out. This is what I find myself doing a great deal with leaders these days.
The new twist is how central purpose has become to the process. In a world in which nothing is the same, we all need something that doesn’t change. The deeper purpose that drives you is the one thing I have seen that doesn’t change. Purpose is the unique gift that you bring to the world. It is the underlying source of your authorship.
Knowing in your bones what purpose has been driving you, and what leads you when all else fails, is the most important ingredient to being the author and mapmaker in this moment.
The key question is: if you disappeared tomorrow, what would be desperately missed? Most of us don’t know the answer to this fundamental and critical question. It is truly humbling to a multitude of leaders I work with to realize that something so basic is so unclear to them. And that lack of awareness shapes the manner in which they lead. The impact of knowing in your bones what purpose has been driving you, and what leads you when all else fails, is the most important ingredient to being the author and mapmaker in this moment.
I recently worked with a leader, Vincent, who was deeply challenged. Vincent had just kicked off a company-wide rollout of agile working to more than 10,000 employees. It had been three years in the making, and this was to be his finest hour. Yet, on the launch date, he discovered that someone else had been hired into the company with the same qualifications and experience to do his job, by his skip level boss.
As we talked, we realized the easy answer would be to quit. Yet his purpose wouldn’t let him. His purpose is to “make it so.” He is the leader who, when things look impossible, pulls the team together and co-creates a course of action that turns the problem into a triumph (just like Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise!)
As we sat there, I could see two parts of him: the part that was crushed and just wanted to run, versus the leader who makes it happen. We all have these two parts of us, but most of us have not fully defined our voice of authorship, our purpose. Vincent, through looking at the most challenging times in his life and how he thrived versus just survived, had authored a journey that turned a threat into an opportunity.
Through dialogs with his boss and the new hire, they began to create a path forward that leveraged each of their gifts and helped address how to apply agile to 30,000+ employees. In addition, Vincent was asked to run the company’s response to the Ukrainian Crisis. Having a large portion of business in Russia, this role is probably the most visible and important task in the company at this moment. Who better to run it than the leader who “makes it so?”
Stepping into his purpose, Vincent has changed ways of working and leading. The company’s daily review meetings have gone from just 10 people attending to more than 150. Why? Because Vincent runs the sessions with a combination of humor, collaboration and focus unlike anyone else. He learned to embrace the fact that, while someone else has the same qualifications as him, it is his purpose – his unique gift – that he alone has, which sets his authentic leadership apart.
Now that purpose has shown up, the “authorities” know that Vincent is the leader who can help them thrive when it matters most.
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