When Leadership is a Calling
“As graduation neared and we sat down, in a Yale tradition, to rewrite our commencement oath-a melding of the words of Hippocrates, Maimonides, Osler, along with a few other great medical forefathers-several students argued for the removal of language insisting that we place our patients’ interests above our own. (The rest of us didn’t allow this discussion to continue for long. The words stayed. This kind of egotism struck me as antithetical to medicine and, it should be noted, entirely reasonable. Indeed, this is how 99 percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job-not a calling.)” Writes Paul Kalanithi in his stunning and unforgettable, posthumous memoir, When Breath Become Air. (Random House, 2016)
Dr. Kalanithi’s definition of a job versus a calling is the simplest and clearest I have seen yet. If you want to better understand what a calling looks like, I highly recommend reading this beautiful book.
I meet a lot of leaders who feel a real calling to serve and develop others. I also get to know a number who are suffering because they got promoted for being excellent individual contributors but never really wanted to be a leader or manager. The skills it takes to inspire and motivate excellent performance from others are very different than what it takes to be an excellent individual contributor. For me, the “calling part” is that you have to really know how to demonstrate care for other people. Perhaps this is fundamentally what makes it so difficult for some leaders.
We often hear people talk about “bad” leaders as selfish and narcissistic. In my experience, it is more often because these leaders are people who never really learned to take care of themselves. They treat people, talk to them, like they treat and talk to themselves. In fact, they are often even harsher to themselves than they are to their direct reports. Really skillful leaders know how to take care of themselves and how to support others. If it is to be sustainable, it can’t be an either/or proposition.
As a leader there are certainly times, when like a very good physician who puts her patients first, you will put your team’s needs ahead of your own. To be effective, you have to be willing and able to do this. But I believe it has to be balanced if it is to be sustainable. You can’t pour from an empty cup. A real calling requires you put your own oxygen mask on first. Then you can take care of the world.
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Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.