By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.
Why choose leadership? That was the question I spoke about this weekend to a conference of student leaders at Michigan State.
I decided early on to aspire to lead for one reason: I prefer to influence the course of my own destiny. “Build your own dreams,” writes the young Chicago born entrepreneur, Farrah Gray, “or someone else will hire you to build theirs.”
Life, after all, is simply a series of decisions we make. We can’t change the cards we are dealt. We can’t pick our parents, our gene pool, where we were born or the financial resources with which we start this great game. But every move we make from then on is up to us. “I am not a product of my circumstances,” asserts Stephen Covey. “I am a product of my decisions.”
Decide to lead or learn to exist under the limitations imposed by others.
And what is the essence of leadership? Making a positive contribution toward solving the problems that face us. Every journey begins with the power of one. And oh how powerful one person can become. Mother Teresa gives us the secret. “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
It’s our duty as human beings to create ripples that open new vistas of understanding, build bridges of inclusiveness, create more compassionate hearts and inspire others to do the same.
What stops us from becoming the leaders we were born to be?
“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears,” says motivational guru Les Brown.
Fear, or it’s unreasonable brother, what Seth Godin calls, “resistance” will always try to talk us out of taking risks. Fear of losing friends and making enemies, fear of the unknown, fear of failure. All of these things try to distract us from taking on the mantle of leadership.
When you understand that failures are the required stepping stones to success you can learn to fail forward. To refocus your trajectory, to build the outer skills and the inner strength you need to press on.
Jimmy Dean was a country singer who became one of the most successful sausage salesmen in the world. “I can’t change the direction of the wind,” he said, “but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
The hardest part is getting started. “The most difficult thing,” wrote the famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, “is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”
Our world needs your active participation. We desperately need men and women with hearts for selfless service who are willing to lead. If the good people don’t step up, the self serving will. Time and again, history has shown that demagogues emerge when rational people give up their power.
My friends who chose not to vote in the last election asked me, “what difference will it really make?”
They typify Alice Walker’s statement that, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
A decision to do nothing is still a decision, with consequences.
So decide to lead. Learn the skills and attitudes of the world’s greatest leaders. Practice them until they become your own. Decide where you stand on the issues that are most important to you and speak up. And let no one deter you. Plug Ayn Rand’s mindset into your own. “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
Leaders are nothing more than individuals who decide to serve others. And the first step to leading others is modeling the behaviors of selfless service in your own life. We are responsible for contributing to an environment where the less fortunate can reach new heights, where there can be conversation in the midst of controversy, where personal accountability becomes a universal expectation.
All that is good, or bad in our world begins at our own doorstep. “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality,” wrote the greek biographer, Plutarch.
In the end, leadership is far more preferable than the alternative. Former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch leaves us with this final timeless bit of wisdom. “Control your destiny, or someone else will.”
Q&A from today’s participants:
Q: How do I separate my private life from my public life?
A: A great question that deserves a blog post all it’s own. I point to the wisdom of the Buddha who warns that “attachment is the root of all suffering.” Our jobs often become intertwined with our self image. In truth, we are temporarily aligning our brand with the brand of the organization we work for. If you can learn to step outside of your body and view your professional existence as would a trusted friend you can develop the ability to assess your professional challenges without the pain of personal attachment. It’s a skill that requires effort to learn, but has many benefits if you can perfect it.
Q: It always feels like I am the leader reaching out to other groups with opportunities to collaborate and, quite frankly, it gets a bit exhausting. How do I build an environment where others become interested in working together on mutually beneficial projects?
A: I always advise beginning every conversation with the “What’s keeping you up at night?” question. People will be more interested in working with you when they realize that you’re goal is to help them get their own problems solved. Try coming at it from that perspective and watch the magic happen!
Feedback always welcome to Scott@Spartanology.com