My personal journey in countless leadership roles has been a tumultuous one. I have had successes and also some failures. I’ve learned a lot about myself during a 40-year journey. Some of the lessons were hard to take.
We’re all born with certain talents. Some of us – including me – had the good fortune to have a family that provided lots of positive feedback or validation for those talents. Mine were music and math.
School provides us the opportunity to develop skills so we can apply our talents. If we have a passion for the pursuit of excellence in those areas, they become our singular purpose. If my musical talent was the equal of Paul McCartney or Lady Gaga, I may have chosen music as my singular pursuit. But my talent didn’t rise to that level and I gave it up when I was 14 years old.
Math also fell by the wayside. I was an ‘A’ student through my studies at the US Naval Academy. However, I never pursued the subject beyond that level. I simply had no passion for it.
With my diploma and my officer’s commission in hand, off I went to a US Navy ship. There I discovered that I had a talent for leadership. I am not bragging when I say this. I am certainly not alone in this talent; there are millions who have it and I never rose to a very high level in any organization of note.
The military provides a great opportunity to learn. You are handed more responsibility at age 22 than any other organization will allow. You learn to find your strengths and understand where you need help. You learn to forge trust with your subordinates and your peers. You develop the sense to ask good questions before deciding your next step. You learn to perform under pressure and accomplish goals with scarce resources. You also learn to solve problems when a plan goes awry.
The military also gives you a sense of purpose. When I was a midshipman, we often quoted Woodrow Wilson, who used the phrase “make the world safe for democracy” when he asked Congress for a declaration of war. It may sound trite and you may object to its message. But, we were young and idealistic.
When I left the military, my focus was on making a living so I could support a family. Leadership skills were simply what I had to offer the job market. And, employers were lined up to take advantage of it. But, I lost a sense of purpose when I was handed my honorable discharge.
Writing in Forbes, Matt Myatt reminds us “purpose is the one thing all great leaders have in common…. Purpose fuels passion and work ethic…. The best leaders recognize a common purpose, shared values, and aligned vision are the hallmarks of any great organization.”
The hard truth is that leadership, in and of itself, is not purpose; it’s a tool like any other. It’s a useful tool in many business situations and good leaders are rewarded for their skill if they also achieve business and financial results.
Financial rewards are great! But, there are many situations in life and even in business that require something else – empathy, for example -- or serenity.
My current work at Vistage, a CEO membership organization, has provided me with a sense of purpose unlike any in my experience. I work with a small group of business owners who strive to do better and be better. To get better business performance, you must be prepared to go deep. You need to be pushed out of your comfort zone. You need to be challenged at a very personal level.
When I started this work, I was prepared for the intellectual challenge but not the emotional challenge. I had to be pushed out of my comfort zone, too. I had to be challenged at a very personal level to make it work.
There is some magic at work when our group gathers for its monthly meeting. We challenge each other, for sure. We also cajole, share, bare our souls and commit to act. One of our group often says that he “can’t have these conversations anywhere else”.
In this work, I have found purpose. To connect… to help… to give.
WHO WILL LEAD?