We Don’t Do Leadership; We Are Leaders

By Leslie Peters

No one ever says, “You do leadership really well.”

People say, “You are a great leader.”

Leadership is not something you do; it’s someone you are.

Leadership is a Personal Practice

A client and friend of mine reflected that a critical and life-changing realization for him was that “with care and practice, with awareness and attention, by doing the work to know myself and listen well to others, the most vital and dynamic leader I could ever hope to be was me.”

We can admire and respect leaders we’ve known and loved. We can revile leaders we’ve known and loathed (while also being grateful for all that they taught us!). In the end, though, the best, most authentic leader we can ever be can only be found in the best, most authentic version of ourselves.

I’ve spent the last several months developing and delivering training at the corporate headquarters of an international airline. The entire first day of the course is spent walking leaders through a process to identify and articulate their personal values. Yes, personal values. Because leadership is a personal practice.

How do we become mindful of how we’re showing up? One important aspect of becoming mindful of who we are as a leader and how we’re showing up is to get clarity on our own values. Our values are the lens through which we view the world. They influence our decisions about where we put our attention (whether consciously or unconsciously!). Where we put our attention, in turn, motivates our actions. By becoming conscious of the values that influence how we see the world, we can be more mindful about the choices we make about our behaviors and actions.

Values as a “Come From” Place

Have you ever had an interaction with someone that totally confused you? You might leave shaking your head muttering to yourself, “I just don’t get where they’re coming from.”

That’s real!

We always have a “come from place.” That place from which our comments, decisions and actions come forward to be seen in the world. Most of the time we’re not aware of our “come from” place, but the people around us experience it through our actions.

My friend Jim McLeod, who was a dean at my college, was literally late for every meeting. It would take Jim forever to walk across campus because he interacted with so many people along the way. Jim always took time to reach out to people. It didn’t matter how late he was or how frustrating it was for the people waiting for him at his destination. It didn’t matter if it was freezing cold or 100 degrees. It didn’t matter that he had raging cancer, which he did. Walking across campus and talking to people along the way was Jim’s choice about how he showed up on that campus, in that culture, and in the world. He made that choice every single day – and how he showed up made a difference every single day.

There was never any confusion about Jim’s “come from” place. Jim always came from a place of deep and abiding belief in the wonderful potential in every person. Every decision Jim made, every action he took, was sourced from a place of deep regard, humility and joy. And, because we knew that his come from place was real and genuine, the fact that he was always late mattered less.

Where does the kind of clarity that Jim had come from? How can we, like Jim, source the decisions we make and the interactions we have in the deepest, strongest and best parts of who we are?

Five Steps to Discover Your Values

We’ve created this process to move people to a clearer articulation of the values that influence their actions.

Step One: Gather your stories

There are moments – conversations and interactions we’ve had, things we’ve loved and things we’ve hated, turning points that changed our path, opportunities taken and lost, ideas that set us on fire – that made us who we are. They continue to influence how we think, act, and interact.

Take a few minutes to capture your stories in response to the prompts below. Go with the first stories that come to mind. These stories can be big events or small encounters. There is no wrong answer. Respond to the prompts that resonate for you. Don’t overthink!

  • As a child, what did you love to do? Tell a story about a specific time you were doing this activity and why it was fulfilling for you.
  • What accomplishment in your career or personal life are you most proud of? Tell a story about what happened and what you contributed.
  • Describe a key turning point or peak moment in your personal life.
  • Describe a key turning point or peak moment in your professional life.
  • Tell a story about a time that you were profoundly inspired.
  • Describe a specific time when you made a difficult decision and acted on it (especially when other people thought you were crazy).
  • Tell a story about a time someone asked you for help. What did they ask you to do and how were you able to help?
  • Tell a story about a recognition you received that was meaningful to you. What were you recognized for and why was it impactful for you?
  • Tell a story about a time you felt really frustrated or irritated. What happened? How did you react and why?

Step Two: Recruit a partner

This process works best when it’s shared. You can review your stories by yourself and look for themes. That can be interesting and enlightening, but there is something powerful about sharing your stories with another person. The trick is that you need someone who can listen deeply in order to identify the themes they hear in your stories. Your partner is not there to relate and share their stories; they’re there only to listen to your stories. Ideally, your partner will capture their stories and share them with you in return.

Here is a suggested request/assignment for your partner:

“I’m working through a process to identify and articulate the values that influence my decisions and actions and I could use your help. Would you be willing to spend about 20 minutes listening to me share some of the important stories from my life? I would need you to just listen and not ask specific questions about the stories. You can say things like, “Tell me more about that,” or “What was that important to you about that story?” but other than that, you’re just listening. When I’m done sharing my stories, I’d ask you to reflect for a few minutes and then reflect the themes you heard back to me.”

Step Three: Share your stories

Get together with your partner someplace where you won’t be interrupted. Tell your stories. Remember that stories have characters, moods and feelings. Saying “I loved college,” is not sharing a story. Describe a day or moment that embodied what you loved about college.

Once you’ve finished telling your stories, take a few minutes to reflect. What surprised you as you reflect on the stories you told? What words or themes come to describe what was important to you in your stories?

Ask your partner to reflect on the words or themes that seemed to be woven throughout your stories. What seemed to be consistently important to you? What words might they use to describe those things?

Some examples of values words might be: growth, originality, security, generosity, influence, adventure, equality, self-respect, integrity, honesty, connection, joy, curiosity, health or perseverance.

Step Four: Make it useful

Reflect on your own impressions and consider the impressions shared by your partner. (You can share your stories with more than one person over the course of this process.) What leaps out at you? What feels particularly resonant? What words might accurately represent those themes? Try to settle on three to five values words and then define them for yourself.

For example, one of my values is Contribution which means to me: bringing what I have to the table, making a difference and sharing what I know.

I can see, over time, that I chose jobs and positions that allowed me to do that and I didn’t choose those opportunities that didn’t offer me a place to do that.

Step Five: Make it visible

Write your values words on a card and post them where they’ll be visible to you. Play with the words and the definitions. Notice how your actions align with those values (or not). Observe yourself when decisions come easily. Is that because the decision is aligned with these values?

Be a Great Leader 

If leadership is someone you are then who you are is how you lead.

The fact is, we’re leading all the time. Every time we walk into a meeting, interact with a colleague, write an email or have a conversation we’re leading. Paying attention to our own perspectives and actions…being mindful of how we’re showing up and how we’re affecting those around us is critical to leading in ways that have a positive effect on everyone around us.

The more clearly we can articulate our values, the more consistently and intentionally we can align our actions with those values.

Aligning our behaviors with our values creates immediate authenticity and that gives us a foundation for courageous action.

Over time, maybe we can do this as well as my friend Jim McLeod!

Leslie Peters is the Founder and CEO of Elements Partnership, a consulting practice that helps people and organizations get unstuck. For the last 25+ years, Leslie has provided counsel and training in organizational development, strategic planning and leadership development to for-profit and non-profit organizations nation-wide. Leslie is passionate about helping people make conscious choices about the kind of leader they want to be. In her Amazon best-selling book, Finding Time to Lead, Leslie provides perspectives and tools that enable leaders to show up in ways that are personally fulfilling and that make a difference for people, organizations and communities. Leslie holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis.

One comment on “We Don’t Do Leadership; We Are Leaders”

  1. Paul says:

    I love these values and how you can update and rediscover your own passion. When I look at these values I’m like “Hmm…very intriguing!” Thanks! 🙂

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