What will people in your organization say about your leadership after you leave your current role? The answer is your leadership obituary. Unlike a family member composing your actual obituary in rosy and idealized tones, colleagues are more likely to write an unvarnished account, without glossing over your behavior, successes, and failings.
While you should not lead in order to please or impress your followers, reflecting on your leadership legacy can provide an opportunity to better align your intentions with your behavior.
What would you like to read in your leadership obituary? Here are some contrasting views to imagine.
“He always paid himself first” vs. “He was enriched only when the organization did well”
Some leaders consistently prioritize their self-interest over the well-being of their organization. This can come in the form of egregious compensation packages, ostentatious perks, or seemingly minor instances of “I’m in charge - I’ll do what I want.” (Michael Jeffries of Abercrombie & Fitch is one example of an astoundingly self-absorbed CEO.)
By all means, you should be paid what you are worth and be rewarded for your contributions. However, don’t fall into the trap of justifying a special set of rules based on your title or perceived value--or act as if yours is an organization of one, with everyone else playing supporting roles. Everyone around you will recognize this double standard, especially if you start ordering them to work harder, sacrifice more, and just be happy they have a job.
Legitimate leadership includes an element of moral authority. Overt selfishness is not admirable, or inspiring to others.
“She only had one gear” vs. “She adjusted her style to suit the situation”
Successful leaders cultivate the ability to use several styles of leadership. They adjust depending on the circumstance. Many leaders become stuck in a default style, and tend to view other options with contempt. Or they may expect others to do all the adjusting.
Remember, being flexible in your style is a recognition that people and situations are different--one size does not fit all. If you cannot adjust yourself (in other words, if you cannot learn), how can you expect your organization to adapt, be resilient, and mature?
“He thought he knew everything, just because he was in charge” vs. “He actively engaged others to learn”
Developing “leadership myopia” is common and dangerous. Narrowing your view, cultivating a culture of subservience, and believing your own press are not attributes worthy of the seriousness of leadership. Humility, curiosity, and critical thinking are three effective antidotes. If you apply these behaviors to your interactions with colleagues, they will reciprocate and help you maintain a balanced perspective.
“She took the path of least resistance” vs. “She challenged others to be their best”
Leadership is a very serious matter and many people crumble under the weight of being responsible for others. If you avoid constructive conflict, if you are unable to apply productive pressure, and if you favor consensus over necessity, you are not the steward of a shared purpose. You are not leading. To effectively challenge others to consistently be their best, you must start by demanding this of yourself. This is not an easy path.
“He was a bully” vs. “He had the courage to lead with compassion”
Bullies are also cowards, and leadership is no place for either.
If you cannot figure out how to manage anger, frustration, and fear, you must get help--now. Anger and intimidation in so-called leadership is widespread, and is not leadership at all.
“She was arrogant” vs. “She led for the shared purpose.”
Arrogance may be the most dangerous leadership flaw, because it masks all the others. Lead without arrogance, or find another pursuit.
“I did not trust him” vs. “I trusted him.”
If you do not lead first with trust, there is no second step.
What would you like to read in your leadership obituary? Why not leave a comment, and let me know?