Written by guest author, Margaret Marcuson.
What does it take to be a leader? Thousands of words have been written on the topic. Here’s the truth: there’s no magic formula. But I do suggest three important elements to work on over time: Know yourself, know your purpose, and know your people. How to live that out will differ for every leader and every setting.
1 | Know yourself.
Why? Your self in the best sense is the biggest gift you have to give to your followers. I’ve been taking voice lessons for 20 years, and my voice teacher, Judi Stabler, says, “No one else has the voice you have. Open your mouth and let it out.” Finding your own voice as a leader, who you are and what your best gifts are—that’s what you have to contribute to your people and the work you are doing together.
In addition, if you don’t know yourself, you can get tripped up by your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You can imitate others and never reach your own full potential as a leader. My voice teacher also says if you try to sing like someone else, it sounds bad. Of course, we can learn from other leaders, but ultimately we have to find our own way to be ourselves as a leader.
Here’s one way to do it: Learning more about your own family story will teach you about yourself and the multigenerational forces that have shaped you. In addition to the family challenges, which you may know all too well, think about the strengths your family gave you for your leadership.
In my own case, both my parents were intensely curious about other people. They would arrive for a visit and say, “We met the most interesting people on the plane!” They gave me the gift of that curiosity about others and the ability to connect with them, which is a great asset in leadership. I’m grateful.
Try this: Ask yourself: What gifts did my family give me for leadership?
2 | Know your purpose.
Why are you here? You can ask this as a big-picture question: Why am I here on this planet? Quaker writer Parker Palmer says that the root meaning of the word “vocation” is the same as the word “voice.” (See his wonderful book Let Your Life Speak for much more on purpose.) So knowing yourself and knowing your purpose are closely related.
You can also ask the purpose question in a close-up, context-specific way: What is my purpose in this place, in this role?
Why is it so important to be clear about purpose?
If you don’t know your purpose, others will be happy to tell you. “I think you ought to…” They will fill up your time and use all your energy, and you won’t really be doing what you are truly called to do. If you have a supervisor or boss, of course that person has a role in directing your work. But that’s not the same as dictating your purpose.
If you don’t know your purpose, you can end up in the wrong job. You can take on extra responsibilities that aren’t really yours to take on. Clarity of purpose means you know what to say yes to and what to say no to.
If you don’t know your purpose, it’s much harder to deal with the inevitable ups and downs all leaders face. When people get upset, as they inevitably will, clarity about your purpose can help carry you through. You can more graciously accept the complaints of others without taking them personally. You’ll be less likely to give in to the nay-sayers, or stay awake at night worrying about them.
Put positively, when you know your purpose, you will be much clearer on how you want to spend your time and energy in your work.
And don’t forget the big picture purpose. It’s bigger than one job. Everyone will have a different answer. This is a lifetime question to consider.
Try this: Take a pad of paper and a pen. (Writing by hand helps your brain work better.) Take a few minutes and start writing, “My purpose is to…” See how your deepest self and your hand work together. If you never touch that paper again, you’ll be clearer about your purpose.
3 | Know your people.
Relationships are an essential part of leadership. I’d even say this: No relationships, no leadership. We have to connect with those we lead. How we do this varies depending on the context, and the size of the group we are leading. You can’t have an I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1971) with a thousand people, or even a hundred. Churches are different from businesses are different from schools. If you are brand new, or if you have been leading your people for a decade, you’ll approach connection differently.
However, no matter the context, you need to be connected to key people, and stay in touch with them. This is true even—especially--when the heat is up. Sometimes leaders withdraw or fight back when challenge or criticism comes. Instead, that’s just the time to connect, and to get curious about others.
If you are leading from the middle of an organization, there’s a corollary: Know your boss. Stay connected. Be curious about those above you, and see what you can learn about them. For example: Can you find out what their birth order is? You don’t have to ask outright, but see what you can pick up about their family of origin. And, of course, understand what their way of working is, their priorities, and their hot buttons. It never hurts to know about their other interests and hobbies.
Acceptance is a key element in relating to those we lead (or follow). This doesn’t mean we put up with anything and everything. Not at all. However, willfully trying to change others doesn’t work very well. Lao Tzu said, “Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?” (Tao te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell.) It’s not easy, but over time it is possible, as we pay attention to our attitudes and the way we show up with people.
One ministerial leader I coached was dealing with a committee that he found challenging. They were getting cranky, and so was he. For their February meeting, he brought them Valentines and chocolate. “They just melted!” he said. And their work went better. What happened? It wasn’t the magic of chocolate (although that probably didn’t hurt). His attitude toward them shifted, and they sensed it instantly.
Try this: Move a little closer to someone in your organization whom you find challenging, without judgment. See what you can learn about them.
Know yourself. Know your purpose. Know your people. This approach to leadership is not quick, and it’s not easy. It’s the work of a lifetime. But it’s worth it, for you, those you lead, and the work you are about together.
About the Author
Bio: Margaret Marcuson helps clergy and other leaders do their work without wearing out or burning out. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry. Find out more at http://margaretmarcuson.com
What one tip from this article will you put into practice, and why?