Zen and the Art of Understanding Leadership
Leadership means knowing your own values and being able to translate that into a vision for yourself and others.
By Leah Eichler (Founder, Femme-O-Nomics)
Have you ever used a word so often that it’s lost all meaning? Leadership has turned into one of those words for me. Even asking, “what does leadership mean to you?” sounds like a pompous question thrown into an awkward team building session or an SAT preparation test.
A quick poke around the Internet would lead most to believe that leadership remains inextricably tied to Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg or even Pope Benedict – all seen as oracles but for wildly divergent reasons. Women and men both have it, so it seems, but it manifests differently.
So I’ve decided to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch to re-examine this elusive word that remains a constant in business jargon.
Leadership is a mindset, not a title, according to Ms. Ray. It has everything to do with values and little to do with corporate climbing.
Despite the book’s cover of a business woman donning boxing gloves — which led me to believe this would be yet another management book telling women to fight their way to the top — Ms. Ray preaches introspection. She shares her war stories about turning into a corporate slave, dealing with charismatic managers who fall short on their promises and being subjected to a screaming boss that literally followed her inside the ladies room to continue yelling, while she cowered in a stall. I simultaneously laughed and cringed.
But what do these tales from the trenches have to do with leadership? If you argue that leadership is way of thinking, rather than a job description, the word begins to take shape.
“My premise is that for everyone to view leadership as a state of mind rather than a job title. Especially in these times, it’s incumbent of all of us to see ourselves as leaders of our lives,” suggested Ms. Ray.
Leadership means knowing your own values and being able to translate that into a vision for yourself and others. If you think of it as navigating a ship, there could be a hundred on board or you might be alone but how do you chart its course and keep it from sinking?
Rather than glean inspiration from the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Ms. Ray draws examples from more relatable individuals, like Stan a security guard at the Regina airport. Stan shared his story about losing his son to suicide, then his job and marriage. Despite this, he set a course to pull his life together, perform well at his role and positively impact those around him. He demonstrated strong personal leadership skills by recognizing the importance of character.
“A leader is someone who is clear about their values and applies them on a regular basis. In other words, having values and living by one’s values are two distinctive propositions,” said Ms. Ray, adding that leadership has little to do with moving up the management ladder or even being in the workplace.
This idea that leadership connotes a characteristic rather than a skill seems to resonate. I asked Carrie Kirkman, president of Jones Group Canada, to describe the essence of her leadership, which she distilled to one word: courage.
“I’ve never been fearful in any job that I’ve had. If I believe something, I am like a dog with a bone,” admitted Ms. Kirkman. To illustrate, she recalls a point in a previous role, as the general merchandise manager of the women’s apparel business at HBC. When the company was sold in 2008, Ms. Kirkman believed that provided the company with a window of opportunity to signal a change to the marketplace and demonstrate how the company could evolve. Some of the company’s leadership was skeptical but Ms. Kirkman stood her ground. The ability to have independent thought and vision under the umbrella of a large corporation stood her out from the crowd, she believed.
That gift of influence is a key component of leadership, according to Cindy Novak, president of Communication Leadership Network, which provides solution to build leaders and their team.
“Managers direct or tell people what needs to be done while leaders achieve outcomes by influencing others to work to achieve a common goal,” said Ms. Novak, who believes that leaders accomplish this through a combination of strong communication skills and the ability to demonstrate empathy.
“The bottom line is that leadership requires a different set of competencies than being a great manager,” asserted Ms. Novak.
Settling on the definition of leadership is a tough riddle to crack. What is missing, Ms. Ray said, is the idea of taking charge of yourself.
“A title on a business card or a placard on a desk or door does not automatically make someone a leader,” she said. “It may give the impression of self-importance and achievement, however, the title alone is not enough.”
This post was originally published at Femmeonomics.
About the guest blogger: Leah Eichler is the Founder of Femme-O-Nomics, a content portal for professional women. She is also the Founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration app. Leah is a columnist on issues surrounding women in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @femmeonomics.