Advice on Leadership

Less than one week before I attended the second in a series of four leadership retreats last year, I received an e-mail from my brother, Mike. I responded, and over the next several days we bantered back and forth, making small talk, me telling him I was about to go away again for another week of learning, and him letting me know he would take the summer off from school, to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. In the last of these correspondences, two sentences away from goodbye, Mike wrote, “I took a class in leadership last semester, and have had the topic on my mind regularly. I would love to listen to any advice that you have.” These were quite nearly the last words I ever heard from my brother. Mike ended his life on May 27th, 2005. This article is the “advice” I wish I could have given Mike, and it’s an important topic for people like him and me, that “have the topic on our minds regularly.”

I have been in various management and leadership positions for over twenty years. I have attended more classes and seminars than I can count and read more books than I can remember. Yet here I sit, pondering this question again. What is leadership? Perhaps even more relevant, what kind of leader am I – to myself, for my family, in this world? What have I been called to do? Am I making a meaningful difference? Am I leading with integrity? I consider these questions now and the many ways I make an impact – or not. I took a stab at defining leadership, about a year ago. As I mentioned earlier, I was privileged to participate in a yearlong leadership program, and as part of my initial application, I was asked to submit a written definition of leadership. I wrote, “Leadership is consistently taking conscious action that impacts, influences, or contributes to the success of an individual (including oneself), a system, and/or community.” Today, a year later, I would add, “with clarity of purpose, caring, and consideration of contrary perspectives.”

It is this place of deep caring that I believe truly defines a leader. Yes, they must be wise, knowledgeable, skillful, and able to strategize and rally the team around individual and collective objectives. They must ensure excellence in execution. They must model the behaviors that they expect from others. Yet I contend that what separates a good leader from a great leader is the leader’s willingness to let go of self interest and see what is most needed for the collective team. Without this ability to take the focus off self and focus on others, the leadership lacks substance and the inspirational quality that creates transformation. It lacks connectedness.

I have been privileged to learn by seeing leaders that connect and transform others because they believe in the power of people, and have hearts filled with compassion, caring, and belief in the possibilities.

Below are a few of the traits I notice that great leaders demonstrate:

  • They are role models, exemplifying the action and behaviors they want others to follow.
  • They expect excellence from their team and themselves and walk with intention. They know their own strengths and weaknesses, and leverage strengths while managing weaknesses.
  • They expose the possibilities. They see opportunity and point us in a direction that reveals the truth. They show us not by telling, but rather by asking provocative questions that light our path with fresh insight.
  • They expel fear and doubt. They challenge us to see “it” for what “it” is –Nothing more than what is between our next big accomplishment and us. They believe we have the power to move through it.
  • They excel at improving performance because they care enough to be honest, forthright, and direct, knowing we deserve the truth from a place of compassion and caring.

If I had another opportunity to discuss leadership with my brother, I would say that it’s about knowing yourself and what you stand for. It’s about finding ways to have an impact on the world by using your unique gifts and talents. It’s about speaking the truth.

Deb Siverson is the founder and co-leader of Michael’s Gate, a non-profit organization that has developed a leadership program for 10 to 12-year olds. The first week-long leadership retreat will take place during the first week of June, 2006, in the Colorado mountains. To learn more about Michael’s Gate, please contact info@michaelsgate.org.