I had a coffee yesterday with an ex-colleague that I hadn’t seen in a number of years. He reached out to me over LinkedIn and suggested that we meet. I had last known him as a successful leader at a consulting firm, but he indicated in our communications leading up to our meeting that he had ventured down the path of self-employment. I looked forward to the meeting as it held a bit of a mystery to me. The two of us had always had a respectful and friendly relationship, but I wouldn’t have described us as being close. I was needing to ascribe some “purpose” to the meeting and I couldn’t do it.
It turns out that the coffee turned out to be just that … catching up over a cup of coffee and sharing of our stories over the past couple of years. It was great just to share thoughts without a “purpose”. That said, it occurred to me afterwards that everything that happens in our life has a purpose for us.
There was a real impact to my colleague’s story, one which essentially had a family man with a lot of potential to “climb the ladder” willingly stepped off the ladder so he could be more fulfilled in life, could focus on adding value to others in what he does, and so he could be enriched by deep relationships with family and friends. What he really wanted to do was choose his own experience as life presented itself to him. He leads himself in an authentic way, and offers that leadership to others around him in a way that I interpret as a form of servant leadership. How can I add value here?
I admire the courage it takes for someone to take the road less traveled. Here was someone who had the allure and rewards of a traditional leadership role (partnership in a consulting firm) right in front of him and he said no. He knew that was the only way for him to get what he valued most.
The gift for me of this conversation (and the purpose I was trying to assign it) was it got me thinking about leadership and how we think of it in our North American business world. How often do we see or hear of people who pursue their next promotion with a single-mindedness, entering into and climbing the managerial ladder, taking on more and more responsibility for bigger and bigger teams. Success is then measured by title, by salary, by budget under management, by number of employees, etc.
What I really wondered is how that all relates to being a leader? What I came up with was that my colleague did was step away from the stereotypical and most blindly pursued definition of leadership and chose his own.
The role we most often call leadership is that of executive leadership or managerial leadership. The act of leading a business or a portion of a business. Let’s call that direct leadership. Don’t get me wrong, almost all businesses would fail without good direct leadership. But does that mean that each of us that aspires to be a leader has to assume that means direct leadership?
What I’ve learned on my journey is that it isn’t my calling to be a direct leader. I’ve done it all my career, largely because I aspired to it like many others. The true learning for me is that there are so many forms of leadership we can embrace that don’t require us to be in a position of authority. Some of those forms of leadership hold great energy for me.
So the question really is … what type of leadership calls to you? Where do you derive your greatest energy, and thus have the greatest value to give in return? Here’s just a few that occur to me:
- Direct (line of reporting relationship)
- Coach (facilitate change and transition for others)
- Confidant (open and honest listener)
- Coordinator (organizer of materials and activities for others)
- Facilitator (guiding progress for others)
- Influencer (creating a compelling force)
- Inspirational (creating a sense of direction and purpose)
- Mentor (using experience to counsel others)
- Teacher (a provider of knowledge, concepts and methods)
I’m sure there are more types than this, but what strikes me about the list is that each requires us to be a part of a team to be able to lead, but also that we have to be invested in the success of others in order for the role to be applicable. Direct leadership is invested in the success of the business or unit being led first, although this does not preclude also taking on other leadership characteristics as well.
But what about those among us that are not drawn to collaborative or group based roles? Do we value them less? My thoughts go to what this world would be like without
those who love to go it alone – individual performers in our business language.
- Artist (creator of beauty)
- Custodian (guardian of things of value)
- Entrepreneur (transforming innovation into economic value)
- Intellectual (advancing the knowledge of society)
- Inventor (combines existing knowledge into new forms)
- Pioneer (opens new territory for others to enjoy)
- Protector (shielding others from harm)
- Warrior (driven to uphold what is right)
- Worker (someone who loves to “do”)
From a leadership perspective there is one thing I know for sure … I would hate to be any form of leader without access to those that love to be individual performers. Whatever role we choose – leader or individual performer – what I hope for most is that we choose authentically, guiding ourselves by where we derive our greatest amount of vital energy (otherwise known as joy).