I had a tough wake-up call early in my leadership career. I guess it was about 20 years ago. Back then, in my mind I was bulletproof. I was unstoppable. I was amazing. All you had to do was ask me. I would have told you.
But actually, I was insufferable, arrogant and completely lacking in empathy. Nobody could be five minutes late for one of my meetings. (God forbid they had to get their kids to school — that wasn’t my problem.)
Luckily I had a mentor, a senior vice president, who had this really direct, stern, caring way of holding up the mirror. One day he said, “Todd, this is the way that you portray yourself to the world, and it’s how you’re being perceived by the world. How you’re being perceived by the world and your [work] results aren’t pretty. So figure it out.”
I called it the ‘magic mirror’ moment. He held that mirror up and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s how people see me? That’s how I am?” To me, that was the pivotal moment. Since then, I’ve said a thousand times to people that I wish we could borrow someone else’s eyes for an instant so that we could see how other people perceive us and how our conduct — what we’re doing and saying — actually lands for other people.
I hadn’t been taking responsibility for my conduct.
Leadership is about taking responsibility for yourself before anything else. Sure, it’s important to pick the right KPIs and hit your targets and pay your employees on time, but there’s a deeper responsibility that underlies all able leadership. This is the responsibility of stepping into one’s power and being intentional in every choice you make.
What would happen if a leader possessed a stronger sense of their “self” and was thus better able to harness the superpowers of the team?
This is one of our key explorations with our clients.
Being present and intentional is a tremendous responsibility. As a day unfolds, we are invited into hundreds of moments of choice. Many people choose to step back from actively engaging with the myriad choices that appear throughout their day, and this choice keeps them in a place of powerlessness and blame. That isn’t very fertile ground; leadership can’t grow in that garden.
When you make your coffee in the morning, the amount of cream and sugar you put in is a choice. When you drive to work, the distance between you and the car ahead of you is a choice. Once you get to the office, the words you choose to communicate with your colleagues are a choice. So is your body language, tone of voice and countenance.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Everything you offer into the world is a choice. The difference between an accomplished leader and the rest of us is that great leaders have learned to be present with every moment, with every person, with every conversation, and to use that clarity to make choices that ultimately add to their experience of work and life. And, by default, these choices add to other people’s experiences. The burden of always and all the time may seem daunting and as such, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. Progress, not perfection.
Leadership at all levels, in all sectors of society, benefits from this kind of true engagement. It is in those moments of presence that we are masters of our own conduct.
What would happen if society and leaders were held accountable for their conduct? What if there really was a conduct barometer?
This notion may seem old fashioned, but what if leaders were lauded for being wonderful teachers and stewards of societal values, as well as conscious, caring, trustworthy and selfless? How would we behave if we could all have that Jimmy Stewart moment from It’s a Wonderful Life, and see the impact we’ve had on our world just by being a stand-up person?
How is society impacted by the current climate of divisiveness and cynicism? What is the counterbalance?
I notice that we can occasionally fall into the trap of focussing on what’s going wrong rather than what is going right. The current climate of divisiveness and cynicism is shaped by our paying attention to negative outcomes, and by our habit of ruminating on that negativity. Whether it’s on the news, on Twitter, or at the water cooler, there’s a lot of bitching going on. We love to feed that wolf — but it never takes us to a place of strength.
Taking action, yes. Complaining, no. It’s tricky.
The counterbalance? Conducting yourself like a true leader, by searching first for the things you can honour in yourself, and then for the things you can honour in someone else’s conduct. Can you listen for the shared interests? Can you help them articulate what success would look like for them? Can you position others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn from their experiences, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours?
Imagine if we had the tools and the ability to engage in constructive dialogue with people who also have good intentions, but a different perspective from ours?
On the whole, people haven’t been taught how to navigate tricky conversations. It’s not a skill that is taught in school, nor in university, unless it’s a specific class on conflict resolution. Yet it’s a necessary skill for leaders to understand, and to be able to expect from their team. How many of your people’s best ideas never come to fruition because they don’t have the tools to reach agreement, or to find a way forward?
How many of your ideas never do? Are you yourself in need of learning how to deftly handle a range of opinions, needs and desires, while simultaneously keeping the ball rolling toward the goalposts?
What would happen if we were better able to lead ourselves and others through a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, and where life’s priorities constantly compete with one another?
This issue of competing desires becomes even more significant when cast in the light of a fast-changing world. Your conduct as a leader — your ability to help others look for shared interests, work collaboratively and bring their own best selves to every interaction — is the skeleton key to managing change.
Navigating change is uncomfortable at the best of times, and can take a wrong turn if your team is not well grounded in methods of communicating and moving things toward the goalposts. The accelerating pace of life and business requires that we remain fluid and optimistic, that we step into our responsibility to be present and choice-aware, and that we coach others to do the same.
When my senior VP held that mirror up 20 years ago, I realized that leadership was about understanding the other person’s agenda and helping them get what they want, as opposed to me trying to push my agenda and using other people as a tool to fulfill my agenda. The key is to align yourself with people whose agendas are aligned.
You Are The Work
Even as leaders, the journey never stops. Leadership takes a lifetime to master — and the work is never truly “done”. What if, as a leader, you had a skilled guide in your corner? A guide whose agenda was to serve your agenda?
You would be that much closer to becoming your finest self, making your finest contribution.
Todd Walsh is CEO of Roy Group.