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.
There is a reason that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Culture is the foundation. Strategy and all the big goals that follow are more likely to be accomplished if they are aligned with your organization’s culture.
If you want a garden that yields vibrant plants, the soil better be good, rich in minerals and nutrients. Culture is the soil in which everything else grows. You can have good yields for a couple years even with bad soil but it won’t continue. You will deplete the soil and then nothing of value will grow. I know I am showing my “raised in Iowa” roots!
I am lucky. When I work with a client organization over a number of years, I experience the culture. Yet I am still able stand back more easily as an external, more objective observer. I hear and see where things don’t fit. I don’t have a stake in it so it is easier for me to see it clearly. The worst culture mistakes are when a company tries to adopt a cultural attribute or program that sounds really good (and is getting a lot of buzz) but doesn't match how they run their business. It is far worse to say one thing and do another than to act in a way that is true, even if is perceived as negative.
Alternative work arrangements are a case in point. When they are well executed, there is already an accountability and ownership culture in place. People understand the expectations and have clear goals. When the foundation for these programs is not in place, it is a free for all and performance suffers. It’s far better to wait to adopt a remote work policy than it is to implement it prematurely.
What is most important about culture is that it emerges from the way you run your business. And just like operational excellence, you must be intentional and vigilant about creating it. Whatever you are trying to create must be supported by consistent language and behavior: your management practices (how you really treat people), your policies, compensation, recognition and how you execute on your values. When your culture is not congruent with your stated intention, everyone knows it. Your lips may be moving but your feet are pointing in a different direction.
I have numerous recent examples and no doubt so do you. It takes a lot of intentionality to say, “we want to be this” and to align all your language and practices with what you intend. It's worth it. Not only will you achieve a great yield from the investment you make in your culture, you will be more likely to attract and retain stellar people who are aligned with your culture. It’s no secret that the best cultures are able to attract the best people. Don’t despair! If you start improving your business operations today, your culture will follow. Regardless of where you start, some of your best people will find it exciting and choose to stay. Before you know it, your business, culture and people will be flourishing.
That “Vision Thing”
Why do you get up in the morning? What motivates you to show up for work? What do you love most about leading your business and your people? When was the last time you felt joy in your work?
When I ask executives these questions, it is not uncommon for them to struggle answering. I understand. People are stretched. Work blends into all aspects of client’s lives. At times, the cup feels closer to empty than full. So seeing beyond the daily demands can be challenging. And vision is more difficult to create when you or your business are not at your best. It is also twice as necessary.
Last year I had a client say to me, “I wish I would have a heart attack or something so I could take a real break.” After a long pause, I said, “What about taking a real break before you have a heart attack?” She looked at me like I was crazy. In that moment, her vision for her work and team was not on her list. From my standpoint the circumstances made it even more of a priority because both she and her team needed a clearer vision to light the path forward.
You have to have a vision to grow and sustain anything worthwhile.
Consider that if you aren’t sure why you continue to show up for your leadership or executive position, with all its perks, imagine the way the people that report to you feel? It is your job to be a part of creating the vision for your organization, to live it and share it. Often when I talk with clients about vision they give me a look that says, “I don’t have time for this fluff right now.” The truth is vision makes your strategy and all the creative and hard work that needs to be done possible! It is a requirement, not a luxury.
So what do I mean when I talk about vision? Vision is a shared mental picture and statement about the hopes and dreams for your work, team or organization.
A vision statement must be:
And preferably it nurtures your spirit, your team and your organization. That is a big expectation. It is also extremely necessary. It takes reflection, time and rich dialogue to create. It requires standing outside of yourself and your own powerful self-interests (I am thinking of both corporations and leaders). But without it your business or growth is not sustainable, and you are less likely to be a place to which really talented, healthy people want to show up everyday. Maybe, including you.
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.