As published in Forbes
We all want to be successful, to win the approval of others and to be chosen for those limited, top, coveted positions. We work hard to become educated, accomplished and known as the best. Unfortunately, the older we get, and the more we move up the organizational ladder, the more elusive and harder to define real success actually becomes. To make matters worse, there is no sure path to achieving it, even if we could clearly define it for ourselves.
Senior leadership is daunting, and for those who have risen through the ranks by being chosen, arriving at the executive level can be quite a shock, an uneasy feeling of being untethered and the illusion of an ultimate authority who could offer solid direction, validation and approval nothing but an immature desire.
“Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Why am I not getting any direction, acknowledgment or validation?”
“I don’t know what ‘they’ want!”
The transition to the executive realm can be compared to the transition to parenthood. Although we are not all parents, most of us understand the analogy.
I remember the first day I was alone with our newborn son. My husband returned to work after his birth, and there I was, alone, for the very first time with a six-pound, two-day-old human being. It was a life that I, alone, was responsible for, for the next 10 hours and for at least the next 20 years!
All was well for the first hour while he napped. Then, he awoke: wet, crying — screaming! I have never been able to stand the cries of my own children; I suspect this is nature’s way of ensuring mothers will comfort and care for their babies. I immediately ran over to change him. Picking him up, I felt how fragile his arms and legs were. I was certain I would break them by forcing them into a clean onesie. And that’s when it happened, the moment I became a parent: I stepped back from my baby, afraid, only to realize: there was no one else there. No one else was coming. It was entirely up to me.
“Oh my goodness, I am it! I am the only one he has.”
My son looked up at me as if to ask, “You’ve got this, right?” So I answered with the only acceptable answer: “Yes, I’ve got this!” This was followed by tears streaming down my face and the following thoughts: “I don’t know how to do this. I have never done this before, but I am the mother you’ve got, and I will not let you down! I will figure everything out. I promise. I’ve got this. I’ve got you, son.”
And just like that, I was a parent. I stopped looking to others to tell me what to do, how to do it, or for validation on whether I was doing a good job. Instead, I turned inward and began trusting my own thoughts, intuition and judgment.
This transition must also occur when we accept a senior leadership position: “OK, these people are now my people. No one can tell me how to be great for them. I must come to rely upon myself. I must listen to and trust my own judgment. It is my job to serve them. I might not consider myself a strong leader, but I am the one they’ve got. I can seek advice and coaching from those I admire and trust, but I, alone, must decide and then live with consequences. This is all on me.”
In senior leadership, as in parenthood, the stakes are high. In fact, they could not be higher. In both cases, we are responsible for the lives of other people. They are counting on us to step up and to get it right. We cannot fail them. This is the promise of leadership: to care for and look after our people, to do everything we possibly can to serve them. When we get this, our people take care of the business.
Perhaps we intellectually understand this. However, we don’t do a great job of living it. If we did, we might live in a different world, one in which executive payouts in failing organizations would never occur. After all, isn’t the captain always supposed to go down with the ship?
As Simon Sinek highlights in his important TED Talk, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” truly great leaders, the ones we honor, revere and wish to work for, show deep emotion and love for their people. Like a good parent, they put the needs of others first, and they deliver on their promise to care for them, no matter what.
Many today want to be stronger and more effective leaders. They attend courses and read the next leadership best-seller, in the hope of becoming great. However, leadership has nothing to do with you being great. It has everything to do with doing all you can to make them great. And for this, you must stop needing others to tell you what to do and how to do it. You must stop seeking or needing external validation that what you are doing is right. This doesn’t mean you don’t ask for input or listen to those around you; it does mean that you must turn inward, hear your own inner voice and trust and validate yourself.
And if you love your people — truly love them and fight for them — they will return your love and fight for the success of the business. Then, together, you just might have the time of your lives advancing the bottom line. It is then that you will realize that what you really wanted had little to do with the bottom line. It was always about the incredible feeling of having journeyed with others to strive for something heroic and the camaraderie you enjoyed along the way.
Like in parenthood, there is a certain loneliness to being a leader. If we have risen through the ranks by being noticed, celebrated and acknowledged, it can feel empty when we finally reach the C-suite, where there are few to no elders left to say what we still desire to hear, “You’re doing a great job!” This acknowledgement can now only come from you. Do the work to become your own inner champion!
This is leadership. And it requires your moment of awakening. You are it! These are your people. Now, go and serve them.