Your Leadership Origin Story

comic-superhero-standing-silhouette_23-2147501843I love superheroes. Because, face it, they can do super-human things like leap tall buildings with a single bound, run faster than a speeding bullet, bend metal, sense danger from miles away, shoot laser beams from their eyes, fly, and the list goes on.

That’s just awesome!

But sometimes what’s even cooler than their superhuman skills is how they became superheroes in the first place.

My favorite part of the superhero story is the origin because it tells us who the hero was before he or she was super. It explains what inspired an ordinary person to become something extra-ordinary.

The superhero origin story makes me think about the real-life leaders and heroes who surround and inspire us to do extra-ordinary things every single day. These are our parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, pastors, athletes, government leaders, civil rights activists, and many others.

Ever wonder what first inspired them to step up and say “follow me?” If we did, imagine what we could learn from their origin stories.

And what about your own story? Have you ever thought back on that first time when you chose to lead? Why you did it? What inspired you? We all have a story. What’s yours?

For me, my story is pretty simple. But it reminds me of the basic lessons of leadership that I was taught at a young age. Also, it makes me smile because the first time I stepped up to lead was simply motivated by my selfish desire to have a little fun. And, boy, did I.

It was the sixth grade and I was taking a class on Texas History. My teacher assigned us a project to tell a story about the Battle of the Alamo. She said “be creative.” That was it. Those two words made up her singular instructions.

At that point in my childhood I had already decided I would be a movie director when I grew up. So, my teacher had just handed me a reason to make my very first movie. I was inspired.

The Alamo
Battle of the Alamo

First thing I did was hire my dad and his video camera for the weekend. Second, I scouted locations all around the neighborhood that I thought could authentically pass for “1836 Texas.” Then, with camera crew and locations at the ready, I cast my closest friends and together we scraped up every costume and prop we could find in our parents’ closets. Turns out I owned a coonskin cap, so it was decided I would play the part of Davy Crockett.

We spent the next weekend reenacting the famous Battle of the Alamo with the camera always rolling. We improvised the script as we went along, made the sounds of gunfire and cannons with our mouths, edited in the camera with the rewind and fast-forward buttons, and had an all around blast. When it was over we gathered on the carpet around my living room television set and watched our masterpiece unfold as we ate pizza and rolled on the floor laughing.

I look back on that experience fondly. Now, peering through adult eyes I can admit the final product was just terrible. But at the time we thought it was amazing. We were proud of what we created and the teacher appreciated it enough that I actually got an “A.”

A few months later we even did a follow-up film on the Texas Rangers with a cast double the size and a final product that was even worse than the first. Like a proper sequel, it was bigger and badder. But again, we loved it. We rallied around a common purpose and felt a passion for the work.

I never became a movie director, but that’s okay. My path took me in a different direction, but what I learned from that first leadership experience was how to set a vision, get others excited to join my project, and execute on an idea. It shaped me into the person that would continue to seek opportunities to lead and learn throughout the rest of my school years and now my career.

That’s my origin story. What’s yours?

[images: http://www.freepik.com; http://www.sonofthesouth.net]

Follow-Worthy Leaders Do This

Much has been written and talked about on the importance of leading others. But what about leading ourselves? Our ability to self-lead has clear links to our ability to lead others and ultimately achieve success in whatever endeavor we undertake – whether at the gym, on the court or field, at work, home, play or study.

As the age-old saying goes, sometimes we are our “own worst enemy.” This is because we forget to take care of ourselves in the daily grind to lead our teams and our organizations.

It seems obvious to say that if we don’t eat, drink, or breathe, we don’t live. But I introduce this idea to lead us to two more obvious points:

  1. If we don’t learn, we can’t grow.
  2. If we don’t grow, we can’t grow others.  

It was Marshall Goldsmith, popular leadership coach and author of What Got you Here Won’t Get You There, who said:

To help others develop, start with yourself.

I once heard John Maxwell, another popular leadership coach, author, and pastor offer this idea about the importance of taking care of ourselves:

If you’ve ever flown, you’ve heard a flight attendant say, ‘If you are traveling with children or seated next to someone who needs assistance, place the mask on yourself first, and then offer assistance.’

This is a simple metaphor for our lives reminding us that in order to help others we must first take care of ourselves. As I reflect on this idea, I find there are three things we must do:

  1. Eat well and exercise
    • Self-focus on the body. What we consume and how we exercise affects our health, which in turn impacts our ability to put forth our best every day. When we are called to lead, and tested to our very limits, we must be ready and able to endure. Being ready requires eating and drinking right, avoiding anything harmful, and routinely doing something physically active that keeps us moving. Successful leaders are healthy individuals. 
  2. Study and hone your craft
    • Self-focus on the mind. Whatever field or industry we select, we must build a strong foundation of knowledge and skills in order to compete. But if we want to do more than just compete – that is, win – and help others do the same, we must recognize that our expertise is only as sharp as the last time it was sharpened. Our responsibility is to never stop learning. We should set aside time weekly for purposeful self-improvement, whether through independent study, participating in experiences outside of our comfort zones, or actively learning from peers and mentors. Leaders who can learn are leaders who can teach.
  3. Reflect quietly
    • Self-focus on the spirit. Quiet reflection can take many forms: prayer, meditation, sleep, a conversation with a loved one, a walk in the park, and others. However we do it, the key is to pause and let the world around us settle. This allows us to regroup and settle ourselves. And it is in these quiet times when we can hear our inner-voices, see the impacts of our choices, and when clarity engulfs us and we suddenly feel able – once again – to take on the world. A leader who is lost can find their way in a mirror.

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. ~ Old Zen adage

When I think back on situations when I was least effective as a leader I recognize those as times when I wasn’t taking care of myself. I know it is easy to lose self-focus in the hustle and bustle of daily life. I also know that’s a mistake.

The harsh reality is that, despite hierarchy and formal authority, people choose whether or not to follow someone. Therefore, in order to lead others, we must offer something worthy of following. And to be follow-worthy we take care of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Doing so allows us to offer our very best while leading ourselves, and others, to success.

[Images: coachingconfidence.co.uk, ronedmondson.com, lifelearn.com]

Shh. I’m Leading.

MLKWhen we conjure up mental images of leaders we often think of those who are in front of a crowd. Demanding to be heard. Like Martin Luther King, Jr and his inspirational I have a Dream speech. Or Steve Jobs and his iconic Apple Inc. product launches.

But what about the quiet leader? Is that an oxymoron, or can the words quiet and leader, in fact, occupy the same space? I think they can. But, what does it mean to be a leader who is quiet? And what’s to gain?

This is a question I pondered recently when I found myself defining leadership using the word quiet. My friends at the e.MILE People Development Magazine have an ongoing collaboration called The ABC of Leadership, where contributors are asked to describe leadership using all twenty-six letters in the alphabet. [You can find it here.] I used the letter Q and offered this:

Quiet: An effective leader removes all distractions, both physical and emotional, in order to listen to others and themself. Doing so enables clarity, inspiration, and motivation.

I think I had quiet on the mind because at the time I was wanting space, some room to think and ponder. To plan. To create. My leadership job was hectic, full of people needing things around every physical and virtual corner. It was, in a word, loud. I wanted nothing more than to shout “shh, I’m trying to lead.”

Of course, I didn’t. Because that would have been rude and maybe a little confusing…

Shhh-Chalkboard-Logo-1024x819But, why was my desire for solitude so strong? Before you answer that and box me into a corner, let me explain that I don’t fancy myself an introvert. But, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that because I know that many of us associate introversion with the desire for quiet time. And rightfully so. It is generally accepted that introverts seek out and greatly value their quiet time. (I know because I asked a few). But, why?

Well, in my experience, your classic introvert has a very rich internal life, one they happily lean into when things are quiet. They take super advantage of that time to think, create, strategize, dream.

I call this super secret skill “shh time”, though it isn’t such a secret to our introverted friends. They know all about it. They get it.

In my opinion, the best leaders take advantage of “shh time” regardless of their intra-or extro-verted preferences. Let’s face it, leaders can’t be out in front one hundred percent of the time. Those who are may not be the most effective at leading. And, also, they may be a little exhausted.

What do leaders get from a little “shh time”?  When we can eliminate the physical and emotional distractions it allows us to do two things:

1. Tune In to Ourselves

How? Make purposeful time in your day for inward reflection. Close your door. Block your calendar. Walk your dog. Take a long drive in your car. Whatever works for you, just shut things off and out and see what happens. You may achieve a little self-awareness and understanding and discover some previously undiscovered insights. Most of all, you may experience that unfamiliar, yet oh so sweet, feeling of calm.

Keep quiet and people will think you a philosopher.

~ Latin Proverb

In quiet places, reason abounds.

~ Adlai Stevenson

2. Tune In to Others

listen1How? When having conversations with others, put down or silence your phone, turn off your computer, make eye contact. Really stop. Really look. And really listen.

Of course, that part isn’t always easy. Trust me, I know. The hard part is fending off that pesky thought-bubble that is quickly filling with questions and comments that must be shared at all costs! You can’t stop the bubble from forming; that’s involuntary. But you can pop it. That’s an active choice. So, pop that bubble and give others your heart and your undivided attention.

I’m exhausted from not talking.

– Sam Goldwyn

Being quiet with others can also be about absence. Meaning, by being silent it allows others the opportunity to explore and accelerate their own talents. Maybe they will trust their instincts and solve a problem or two all on their own.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.

~Andrew Carnegie

mlk-in-birmingham-jailEven though we tend to remember great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs in times when they were out in front, we should try to picture them when they were behind the scenes being very very quiet. I’m just sure it was in those “shh times” when the true magic of their leadership happened.

When was the last time you led quietly? Try it. See what happens.

The One Career Skill You Need NOW

Brand-micsA few years back the company I worked for made a difficult hiring decision. They chose not to hire a qualified candidate for a hard-to-fill position because of something they found on the internet. I don’t know the details of what they found, but I do know that it was something this candidate had personally posted and it was concerning enough that it resulted in a rescinded job offer.

That was over ten years ago. During a time when the world of personal expression on the World Wide Web was new and mostly unexplored. When researching job candidates online was mostly unheard of.

Cut to today, a time when not having an online presence in some form or fashion – be it through Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, and the list goes on – is atypical. And a time when prospective employers “Google” candidates on a regular basis to learn things about them that the standard resume and cover letter won’t reveal.

I know this because I’ve done it. And I know colleagues who have done it. Also, it is a two-way street. I know candidates who looked me up before submitting their cover letter and resume to me. In one particular case that tactic backfired because their cover letter said way too much about me and not enough about them. A little stalker-ish really. [Sidebar: please don’t do that…]

The reality is that today we’re living life online. Information is readily available to anyone with a computer and a search field, and companies are taking full advantage of it in their talent acquisition practices. Here we are – smack in the middle of the Information Age. But sadly many of us forget or are oblivious to this fact and the growing reality that what we do in the virtual world bleeds into our physical world…and our careers.

Your CareerFor example, a colleague recently relayed a concern about a friend’s daughter who had just turned 21 and celebrated her birthday as many newly minted 21-year-olds do: she drank and drank and posted photos of her drinking, as well as the results thereof, online.

This particular 21-year-old wants to be a school teacher. My colleague is concerned, and I don’t blame him, that a prospective employer will run across these photos and think twice about hiring her. And should that 21-year old be surprised?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should live perfect lives and not do the normal things that humans do. Certainly not. But what I am suggesting is that we accept the reality that when the time comes to enter (or transition within) the workforce everything we post online affects our career prospects as well as our career longevity.

So, what do we do about it? What’s the solution? Simple. Manage your online presence.

Social Media Self-Management is the new Career Skill that you need right now. Here are three easy questions to ask that’ll put you on the path to success:

  1. Is my email address professional or a little too personal?
    • I’ll admit it, my first email address was BigAl92678@aol.com. Do you see all the things that are wrong with this? I’ve also been the recipient of resumes from addresses like hotlips@yahoo.com. Good one.
    • Want something professional? Try [firstname][lastname]@[freeaccount.com].
    • Same goes for any username through which you plan to communicate with an employer. Take a look at your Twitter handle, and more.
  2. Do my status updates mean something or am I a vaguebooker?
    • Vaguebooking is, sadly, a popular form of online expression. As defined by UrbanDictionary.com it means “an intentionally vague Facebook status update, that prompts friends to ask what’s going on, or is possibly a cry for help.”  For example: “wondering if it is all worth it” or “thinking that was a bad idea.”
    • The posts that add the most value are those that send a clear message, are informational, and keep it positive. Speaking of which, you should also avoid “hatebooking.” No one likes a hater.
    • vaguebookingThese ideas also apply to blogging, comments, and any other virtual place where you can leave your digital opinions.
  3. Are my photos pleasing or off-putting?
    • This one is easy. Keep your photos PG, or at the very least PG-13.
    • You don’t have to be buttoned-up and stuffy; in fact keeping it light and fun is good. We “professional types” also like to have fun…but those of us who are concerned with our professional images understand balance and moderation. No need for extremes.
    • Same goes for videos.

Today we live life out loud and online. That’s the new normal. But because someday we want someone to hire us, we need to be smart about how we do it. In the end, I’m just saying please pay attention. For your own good. Think twice before posting something you’ll later regret or that may make the difference between an offer letter and a rejection letter.

In closing, I know a student who once made a difficult, but very wise decision. He deleted his long-standing and popular Facebook account and started up a new one. Why? Because he looked at his account through the lens of a prospective employer and recognized that even he wouldn’t hire him. He knew he needed a restart. That was a wise Social Media Self-Management move. Companies have Social Media Strategies. Why shouldn’t you?

Did I miss any good tips? Leave your ideas below.

[Images: business2community.com; laboracademy.org; someecards.com]