This article was first published on Mind Body Green.
I had an illuminating conversation with an acquaintance, Laura. Laura’s beloved boss—a woman with the rare combination of strong leadership skills and compassion-- had just left the organization. I complimented Laura on her work ethic and positive attitude, and asked whether she would step into her boss’ shoes.
“I am not qualified for that job. I’m learning a lot, so maybe in a few years,” she said. “I only hope we get a good leader.” She crossed her fingers on both hands, shaking them in the air for emphasis.
Laura, like many of us, yearns for a leader who will recognize her efforts, create opportunities for her to grow professionally, and build a strong team that works with a sense of mission and purpose. Laura waits optimistically. Ultimately, however, the outcome is out of her control.
Strong leaders—those who blend vision, charisma, commitment towards the organization, and empathy towards employees—are rare. Every day, we read about leaders who abuse their positions of authority.
Corporate CEOs flout lavish lifestyles, while shortchanging employees on insurance and other basic benefits. Church leaders victimize the very individuals they are called to serve. Government officials build their personal political platforms at the expense of their constituents.
Is it any wonder that most people are cynical about corporations, religious institutions and government? How can we regain a sense of power when outcomes are largely outside of our control?
We must become the leaders for whom we desperately yearn.
We do not have to assume roles for which we do not feel qualified or work harder at the expense of our personal life. But, we must reframe our perspective in deliberate and meaningful ways:
1. Do our work exceedingly well.
I love the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film follows 85-year old Jiro Ono--considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. Although he has been studying his craft for 76 years, Ono says, “All I want to do is make better sushi.” He exhibits painstaking attention for every detail —picking the rice, buying the fish, training his staff---all in an effort to improve.
How can we pursue our life’s work in a way that is mentally fulfilling and engaging? Ono says: “Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work….You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
Approach work like a noble craftsman. Work diligently to get stronger, smarter and better—little by little-- on a daily basis.
2. Appreciate all efforts equally.
Make a habit of acknowledging and sincerely praising the efforts of those who have made your life better. Value the contributions of everyone—the dry cleaner, dog walker, hairdresser, and mailperson--equally. Make it your mission to uplift those around you. Famed basketball coach John Wooden said, “People want to believe you are sincerely interested in them as a person. Not just for what they can do for you. It always comes back to courtesy, politeness and consideration.”
3. Do not complain. Find the lesson instead.
In the beginning of my career, I had a boss who I nicknamed “My Nemesis.” Ruthlessly ambitious, she drove staff with an iron fist. Once, she followed me into the bathroom, barking orders on the other side of the stall while I was, ahem, attending to my personal business.
In hindsight, I should have dubbed her “The Teacher.” She made me a better lawyer (if for no other reason than my unadulterated fear of her criticism). She taught me how to set limits. But, most importantly, she taught me first-hand how not to manage. I learned that the quickest way to de-motivate people is to devalue them.
Malcolm X said, “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.”
4. Ruthlessly tame your ego.
Without introspection, it is easy for leaders to succumb to their egos. Rarely told “no,” leaders can become vulnerable to their own hype that they are smarter, more charismatic and more powerful than everyone else in the room.
Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing Christine Lagard, Director of the International Monetary Fund, speak. In spite of her powerful position, she is self-effacing, open and down-to-earth. She said, “You know, when I sit in meetings and things are very tense and people take things extremely seriously and they invest a lot of their ego, I sometimes think to myself, ‘Come on, you know, there’s life and there’s death and there is love.’ And all that ego business is nonsense compared to that.”
Remain open. Listen to others. Dedicate yourself to finding wisdom in all places from which it springs.
I’d love to hear the lessons you’ve learned about leadership in your own life. Please feel free to share in the comments below.