1 Way to Define Your Leadership

I was recently asked to give a talk at a conference where the theme was “Define Yourself.” In preparation for outlining what I might talk about, I reflected on all the ways that one can define themselves. Two ideas immediately popped:

  1. You define yourself by the things you do or don’t do - what you accomplish or don’t accomplish.
  2. You define yourself by the things you’re good at - natural talents or skills that you develop over time.

This seemed like a good starting point, so I was off and running.  But, as I began to draft an outline, something else popped. I suddenly remembered a recent experience I had.

A few weeks prior to being invited to speak at this conference I attended a farewell reception for an executive who was celebrating 20 plus years with his company. The reception began, as may events like this do, with drinks, hors d'oeuvres, and a little mingling. After a while, it turned into speeches, reading letters from coworkers-past, storytelling, and gift giving.

As I listened to the stories about this executive's illustrious career, what struck me the most were the words people used to describe him. The most memorable and oft-repeated were:

  • You were compassionate
  • You lead with class, integrity and dignity
  • You cared about people
  • You helped me grow and develop
  • We're here today because of you

These words, selected in the moment and pulled from the heart, were meant to be the most important descriptors that would sum up this leader's legacy, said by the very people that he had led. There was even a wager going around on who would cry first because everyone knew that he had touched each of their careers in a significant way.

Yes, a little was said about sales, revenue, and margin, things that he accomplished and things that he was good at. But a disproportionate amount was said about this person's impact on people.

When it was this executive's turn to speak, he didn't talk about his many accomplishments and his talents - though he could have and everyone would have nodded in agreement. Instead, he spent those precious moments talking about everyone else in the room. He called on people by name and explained how he would have been nowhere without them.

The most memorable thing he said:

I'm really not that smart.  I surrounded myself with smart people.  It is because of you that we've accomplished so much.

I was honored to observe and experience this heartfelt walk down memory lane as this wonderful leader was bid farewell. The way people talked about him, and how he talked about everyone else, was truly inspirational; and when you put all the words together they point to one incredibly salient point.

Success is about relationships.

At the end of the day, what matters most - after all the dollars are counted and the trophies are neatly stacked on the shelf - is how you impacted others. Consider this reality: This individual has left the building and someone has replaced him. That someone will carry on his job. So, there’s nothing unique about that job, not necessarily. The only unique impact that we can control is our impact on each other.

What can we learn from this and other leaders who have left a lasting legacy of good relationships? Maybe, this:

To lead successfully, one must

  1. Respect others
  2. Care for others
  3. Develop others

On the surface, each of these sounds incredibly easy. They also sound very touch-feely. But I caution you to brush them aside as if to say "I’m not like that; I’m not good at that; that’s not important." I beg to differ; as I speak from personal experience and can also draw on the experiences of others to support my idea.

So, how can we do this? What does it mean to respect, care for, and develop others? This can be very easy to talk about, but hard to do. And there is no prescription, as this may look different for each of us. These are simply ideas to live by - nice ones.

I leave you with one last thought. I think back on my first two ideas about how to "define yourself," which were through our accomplishments and our skills, and I still think we can do that. There's nothing wrong with that. These ideas are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complimentary. It is okay to focus on yourself, to want to accomplish things and to want to make yourself better. Because by making ourselves better we are able to further enable others.

To illustrate this idea, watch this powerful video (Tribute to Coaches Poem by Elliott Hulse) where the narrator says this:

I grow strong only that I might strengthen you.

In closing, the big idea here is that we should define our leadership legacy through our relationships. The people that surround us and those who are surrounded by us. Let's be a part of each other's legacy.

[Image: firstpost.com, jeffcalloway.com]

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