Build Your Leadership Capacity on a Strong Personal Foundation

Jayden,* a newly appointed supervisor, approached me with a question at the end of a leadership program. “What can I do to advance quickly as a leader in my company?” he asked. Jayden was surprised when I responded, “Start by building a strong personal foundation.”

As I went on to tell Jayden, you can’t build a skyscraper on a foundation meant for a garage. The foundation will crumble, and the building will collapse. The same is true for your leadership career. Your capacity for growth and advancement is only sustainable if you build on a sound foundation.

In my new book, Mission-Critical Leadership: How Smart Managers Lead Well in All Directions, I offer four questions to help you build your leadership foundation:

Vision: Where are you going?

The late Baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra was as famous for his misuse of the English language as for his coaching career. One of my favorite Yogi-isms is “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Yogi was right. Without a clear vision, you can’t define your goals; and your accomplishments may lead you “someplace else,” as he said.

The best organizations have a clear vision. So do the best leaders. Write a compelling statement of the ideal destination you want to reach at a determined point down the road. What will your life be like, personally and professionally, as you approach that destination?

Purpose: Why is this destination important?

Now that you’ve clarified your vision, it’s time to articulate the purpose behind that vision. Purpose reveals motivation and offers meaning. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, once said, “Evermore people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

Face it: the road to your vision is full of twists and turns, not to mention potholes at inopportune places. There are countless detours and ways to veer off course. It’s tempting to give up. At times like these, you will lean on your purpose to keep going. What gets you up in the morning and makes it worthwhile to keep pursuing your vision? Find or create an image that serves as a visual reminder of your purpose.

Mission: What are you doing to get there?

Laurie Beth Jones, author of The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life, describes a mission statement this way: “The mission statement is centered on the process of what you need to be doing.” Your mission statement should include powerful verbs that reflect your vocation and the people you serve.

Consider an example from a popular Fast Company article that featured the personal mission statements of top business leaders. Amanda Steinberg, the founder of the personal finance site DailyWorth, stated hers as: “To use my gifts of intelligence, charisma, and serial optimism to cultivate the self-worth and net worth of women around the world.

Values: How will you act along the way?

Values are defined by self-leadership authors Andrew Bryant and Ana Kazan as “personal or shared enduring beliefs or ideals about what is good and desirable and what is not.” They are principles to guide your actions, filters through which to make decisions, and virtues to use in evaluating behavior.

Choose words or phrases that resonate with you and hold you to a higher standard. Limit yourself to five or six bullet points that reflect your top priorities rather than trying to cover everything. Reflect on your values regularly; ask whether your actions, attitudes, and words reflect your values.

Do your homework

Schedule time alone to work on your personal foundation. Wrestle with the four questions in this article and brainstorm ideas for each area. Organize your thoughts into a brief paragraph or bullet point list for each one. If you come up with catchy sayings, great, but don’t get hung up on wordsmithing them. What’s more important is to start building the strong foundation you need to expand your leadership capacity.

*The name has been changed for confidentiality reasons.

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