I often speak to people who have been in leadership roles for many years. When I suggest that leadership is a calling for them, I get emphatic nods of agreement. This is often quickly followed up with a slightly embarrassed cough and a “well I wouldn’t necessarily use that specific language”. After all, ‘calling’ has spiritual overtones which seem at odds with how we think about business.
Exploring the idea further, what emerges is a sense of vocation or sustained commitment to taking the lead in some form.
Whatever language is used, leading is an integral part of their whole life’s journey which brings depth and meaning.
Now journeys are interesting things in that they have milestones as well as an overall direction or intention. They set a trajectory for us which might send us over mountain ranges or other hazardous terrain. Our individual walking of it is unique and the landscape and milestones can be anticipated.
This insight has significant bearing on how we interpret and respond to leadership challenges.
I am usually engaged (initially at least) to help the leader ‘fix’ something – the team, a restructure, problem employees. When we respond to such challenges in the business-driven context, we get one set of answers which will do the job. However, when we place the same challenges in the context of a much larger leadership journey we discover something entirely different.
The challenge is no longer just about the immediate results. It is revealed as an iteration of a current leadership milestone or lesson on the way. For example, fixing the team can be about clarifying the leader’s intention around the culture (s)he is building. The leadership strategies then focus on how (s)he intends to breathe life into that culture through who (s)he is being as leader, just as much as what (s)he is doing – or what (s)he asks the team to do. The results are richer, wider reaching and longer-lasting….. and infinitely more rewarding.
This is definitely the harder path and therefore undertaken by people who feel compelled or called to take it. Else, why not just play the short-term game and collect your bonus?
There are many different paths into leadership: the traditional school-university-corporate pathway, via small business, sport, religion or simply through pursuing our own ideas and vision and finding others become inspired to follow. Whatever the way in, it seems that each person can identify a seminal moment, most probably in the early phases of adulthood, when they realised others were relying on them to lead. Consider your own moment. What was it about that situation that was different? What were others seeing in you or needing from you?
For those of us in the corporate world we are readily funnelled into an established pathway of increasing seniority without needing to pay too much attention to questions of leadership. This can help us defer some of the milestones/lessons for a little while. Entrepreneurs and small business leaders may find they just have to ‘get on with it’. There isn’t the time for navel gazing!
Ultimately I believe all leaders will ask themselves the questions (in some form) “what am I leading people towards?” and “what gives meaning to who I am and what I am doing?”
The trigger can be when work conflicts with family priorities or health. Perhaps we discover that driving change through our own force of will is not enough. Or we have a challenge ahead of us which we simply don’t know how to tackle. We might find ourselves at the pointy end of the corporate hierarchy and we fear there will be no more promotion for us. Or indeed part of us simply knows that that the deeper questions exist and are worth answering.
These are painful and transformative times as our comfortable thinking is thrown out of its easy chair and forced back onto the road of discovery once more.
Without the bigger perspective of the whole leadership journey, the temptation is to give in to the sense of defeat (I should be further on in my career/ the situation can’t change) and decide to settle for less.
However, when we engage sincerely with questions of meaning people notice straight away – our spouses, friends and colleagues. The changes are both subtle and deep – and mark the beginning of a new phase of the journey.
Our sense of calling becomes clearer and our energy returns.
In this phase we are invited to become conscious of and reconsider the beliefs and assumptions we have built up about ourselves, leadership and how the world works. Some beliefs will be kept and treasured. Others will be let go (with gratitude as they have served us well to this point) and new understandings take their place. The reassurance is that this road has been walked, analysed and understood before by many great leaders and thinkers throughout the ages. We find ourselves in good company and don’t have to walk without a map or guide.
So my question to you is “where are you on your leadership journey?”
Over the next few months I will be speaking with a number of leaders from all walks of life to identify more of the milestones and waypoints they have encountered. I would welcome hearing about your journey as well to add more details to the map. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will share the collective insights and learnings early next year. After all, knowing more of the journey helps us to be much more confident in continuing to step forward and take the lead.
 Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler for example. It is also evident in the work of people like Peter Senge and Jim Collins/Jerry Poras.