Occupying a leadership role does not make someone a leader.
Many of us know people in lofty positions with long titles who appear completely ill-suited to the requirements and sacrifices of leadership, even as they are “leaders of the organization.” To offset this widespread defect, it is important for everyone with leadership responsibilities to question if they are worthy of their leadership, and take action if they are not.
Leadership worthiness involves what you do to deserve to be in a position for others to follow. As yourself: By what right--beyond your position in your company’s organizational chart--is it appropriate for you to remain as a leader?
Worthiness includes legitimacy, integrity (and integrity is absolute: you have it always or you have none); and the visible examples of continually striving to become as complete a leader as possible.
Here are five questions to help you determine your own leadership worthiness:
1. Am I leading for my own gain, or for the good of the shared purpose?
A common complaint about leadership is that people in power are in it only for themselves. While you can’t correct this broader social malaise, you can make sure that it does not exist within your span of responsibility.
Whether you run a small team or lead a global corporation, commit to act on behalf of the organization’s shared purpose--the reason everyone has come together as a group. By basing your decisions and behaviors on what is best for the shared purpose, and not yourself or your favorite employees, you establish and promote an expectation of fairness and prioritize the greater organizational good over individual gain.
Actively connect what you do to this common goal--and talk to others about how they can do the same.
2. If I am an accidental leader, what am I doing to legitimize my position?
Some leaders arrive in their positions by chance, circumstance, or accident. Family-run businesses often pass leadership from one generation to the next without rigorously questioning the suitability of this routine succession. Members of a startup team remain in senior roles due to founder friendships rather than their ability to scale the company. Senior executives reward loyal subordinates with promotions, or manufacture loyalty by hiring based on patronage, thereby ensuring a safe status quo.
If you are an accidental leader and don’t want to be, you must work diligently to break through the stereotype. For example, if your parents anointed you as the next leader of the family business and you are not yet prepared for the challenges, don’t hide behind the privilege. Admit your gap, get help, study hard, reach out to long-standing employees and build new, different relationships based on trust and ability -- not your last name.
3. In those honest moments when I clearly see what most frightens me about leadership, what do I do to get help?
Leaders need to see their fears as clear signals. It takes considerable courage to answer your inner voice when it says, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” by seeking help to grow as a leader.
The poet David Whyte writes that we don’t need to vanquish our fears--we must know what we are afraid of so that we are not taken by surprise when frightened. This is a key element of leadership development: examining the holes you are likely to fall into, practicing scrambling out of them quickly, and learning how to avoid them altogether in the future. Growing your leadership is possible when you don’t hide from or ignore your fears.
4. What do I do every day to encourage people to tell me the whole truth, and how do I encourage myself to tell others this same truth?
A constant challenge for a leader is the process of soliciting and receiving accurate and honest information. People don’t like to tell the boss bad news, admit mistakes, or appear less than fully competent. The dynamic is complicated by leaders who discourage honest communication, fail to consistently make tough discussions, won’t deliver unpopular news, or can’t face reality.
As a leader, you cannot expect complete candor from others until you provide it. You must continually seek out the truth and make it okay for others to tell you the truth. You do this first by being honest, practical, and level-headed. Your efforts will be rewarded in kind.
5. How does my leadership help others be the best they can possibly be?
Time is short. Your tenure in a meaningful leadership role may be brief, and life itself is preciously fleeting. Our most meaningful experiences usually involve relationships and interactions with other people. Of less importance, at the end of our days, are many of the personal and professional measurements we use to define success: avoiding mistakes, worrying about perceptions, appearing competent, company valuation, number of clients, market share, and the like.
What matters is being the leader who focuses the fullest abilities of the team, inspires and guides individuals to new levels of insight and creativity, and unlocks the vast, untapped possibilities of a group’s shared purpose. Get this right, and the right measurements will follow.
This is worthy leadership.