The Meaningful Leader Part 2
Updated: Nov 20
Last week I took a bit of a risk and posted some of my own thoughts on leadership. Thoughts that have guided me over these past sixteen years. My guiding motivation is to hopefully dispel some cultural myths regarding leadership, and, in the process, help you lead with meaning. I want your leadership to matter to those who follow you. I want you to become a meaningful leader.
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Whether we recognise this or not, our experiences shape our ideas about the world we live in and the culture we are a part of. Our ideas, and the ideas we are drawn to, reveal what we're sensitive to, what we relate to. When you think of the causes you're drawn to, your experiences have revealed your tolerance thresholds. How long can you put up with something before you say, "This needs to change and I've got to do something about it.”
To put it a different way, our experiences are our greatest motivators. Our motivations determine what we are going to aim at, and they organise our perceptions to zero-out what isn't relevant to the goal we've set. If you're hungry you aim at something to eat.
As I alluded to last week, meaningful leadership begins when you decide to take responsibility. Influence is a by-product of that choice. Once we commit, our own growth now has a direct corollary to the success or failure of whatever, or whomever, we have chosen to lead.
That is why discovering what has motivated you to make that decision is critical. Because the motivations underscoring your responsibilities ultimately fuel you.
Roughly eighteen months into my first significant leadership role, I was exhilarated. We had more than doubled our weekly attendance, and for the first time in nearly two years, I was seeing real-time momentum. To say this was going to my head would be an understatement (discovering humility in leadership will be another post for another day).
My motivation, I believed, was still helping people...but was it? Has achieving results become my guiding motivator? My most central value?
Self interest and self-fulfillment are powerful motivators in leadership, but they're also powerful manipulators. We all work in a results driven culture, but does that mean we have to be fuelled and motivated by our own sense of individualism? What motivates us to take responsibility is an innate value. John Gray, in his book “Straw Dogs,” argued that human beings will only truly care, only truly help someone, if that person reminds them of themselves. So, in practice we help others to help ourselves. This is proof of the “Selfish Gene Theory” at work.
I continued to think, “Is this true? Was my own central value now growth, organisational progress and personal achievement? Was my team there to make me successful, to make my name matter?” Around the same time, an experience recalibrated my leadership and set me on this journey to try and become a meaningful leader.
In the busyness of our weekly programme, there was always a particular young guy who stuck out to me. No matter what the weather was, he was always wearing long sleeves. This began the almost weekly ritual of me asking if everything was O.K. and him responding with the usual, "I'm fine." A few months into this routine, I noticed his sleeve had unintentionally rolled up to his forearm. This was the first time I saw the scars. Clear signs of self harm. Sensing an opportunity to get him to talk, I approached him and asked again:
I was met by his usual response, "Everything's cool."
I looked down at his arm and said, "You sure?"
He quickly rolled up his sleeve and began to walk away and I tried to salvage the moment, "If you need to talk, you know I'm here."
To which he nodded and continued walking away.
A few weeks went by until he finally let me know what was going on. He showed me his arms and I broke. I'm tearing up now just thinking about it. This experience fundamentally changed me. To see a kid in so much pain through no fault of his own, so desperate for relief from the traumas in his life, that he hurt himself, scarred himself, broke something within me. I realized what I was feeling was compassion.
Compassion is a completely misunderstood concept. All of our emotions move us in some way or form, and while compassion is an emotion, it cannot be confused with sadness or sympathy. Compassion is an emotion that stirs something within us. It takes hold of us and always produces an action. I understand that we are constantly presented with trauma, and in our culture it seems that the appropriate response is to stop the flow of compassion. With so much to care about, why care at all?
As a leader who wants their leadership to matter, this isn't an option. A meaningful leader is powered by compassion, not consumption nor individualism. The flow of compassion will focus you to constantly consider what is meaningful and not expedient. Essentially, what is worth your time and what is not. What would happen in our own lives and leadership if we cared not just about our own results, but one anothers? The leaders we trust are usually the ones that have demonstrated compassion for us. Remember that.
Culture is usually created when a group of people decide collectively on their values. As a leader if you value comfort more than commitment, you will find people who value the same.But, do not be surprised when you ask your team to place their commitments above their comforts, and the culture you have created will not allow it.
What would happen if you valued compassion?
If you allowed it to fuel your leadership.
What change could you genuinely catalyse if you instituted it?
Leadership that matters, that has real meaning in people's lives, is always powered by compassion.