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Leadership Thought #464 – Embrace What Makes You Special

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be what you are not.  There are a lot of books out there that tell you that you can be anything you want to be, but this simply is not true.  No matter how hard I try, there are certain things I just can’t do or won’t be able to do well.  It has saddened me to watch so many people regularly set themselves up for failure with unrealistic expectations about what is possible for them and others.  Instead of trying to force yourself into a role/career/opportunity that isn’t right for you, why not embrace who you are and what makes you special and tap into that?

I firmly believe that each one of us is born with gifts and unique talents we can share with others and excel at. Unfortunately, at an early age we are thrust into an educational/social system that pushes us to conform and defines what success within this system should look like.  And like most ingrained systems, the model is outdated and serving the purpose of prior generations. Very early on life we are taught that there are winners and losers and that winning requires certain characteristics and attributes that only a select few possess.  Moreover, the path towards achievement is narrowly defined and more often than not materialistic in nature.  I believe this partially explains our dysfunctional societal obsession with celebrity and wealth.  Don’t buy into it!

One of things I marvel at in life is how different we all are from one another.  Sure, there are obvious physical similarities, but in the course of any given day I meet people who blow me away with their individuality.  Some people can fix anything with little guidance; others can solve complex mathematical problems in their head, while others are quick on their feet and handle any social situation.  I’ve witnessed creative minds that operate on a level I can’t even fathom.  Some people thrive under stress while others fall apart.  Science is fun for some people and a bore for others.  There are people who are so physically gifted they make any athletic activity look smooth and easy while others stumble attempting the most basic physical task.  There are people who look for the spotlight and others who run from it.  Some people like to lead while many more want nothing to do with it.  Our differences are vast and wonderful. None of the above is good or bad; it just makes you who you are.  And, the more we try and put ourselves in situations where we are pre-programmed to thrive, the happier we will be.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about a state of being called “flow” where you feel perfectly aligned with what you are doing.  Time seems to stand still, you feel an innate sense of joy and your efforts feel almost effortless.  At this moment you are one with nature and your own being.  We’ve all experienced these moments, but sadly they are usually few and far between.  Reality quickly returns and we are back on the treadmill of life, trying to survive our own existence by doing what we feel we should be doing.  I’ve never like the word “should.”  Of course there are family and civic responsibilities we must attend to, however, this is only part of who we are, not all of it.  I’ve been privileged to experience a number of people who have followed what Joseph Campbell termed their “bliss” and lived wonderful lives doing unique things that an objective outside person couldn’t imagine would lead to any level of success, but it did. Never forget that true success is an individual definition.   Happy people make better spouses, parents, siblings, friends and bosses.

Shakespeare stated it perfectly centuries ago, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  To be of maximum service and value to others we must first be true to ourselves.  Please don’t spend a lifetime trying to be someone you are not.  Instead, celebrate and tap into what is great about you already.  Pay attention to the positive signals the world is giving you.  Look for and be open to the “flow” of life and it will find you…


Daily Leadership Thought #140 – Get Involved

I am fortunate to sit on a few nonprofit boards focused on community issues.  It is a privilege to be asked to serve and strive to make a positive difference.  What you quickly notice when you interact in these circles is that you tend to see the same people.  I have a theory that less than 5% of the residents do most of the volunteer work in any given community.  Sadly, the rest of us are spectators and sometimes even critics of their hard (and often thankless) work.

Every one of us has a strength or talent we can share.   While fundraising is often necessary, volunteering is just as important.  Time is a precious resource we all equally share.   Just because you may not be able to make a big donation, it doesn’t mean your efforts aren’t needed or appreciated.   It never ceases to amaze he how much can get accomplished by the energy and efforts of a small group of dedicated people.  More often than not, these results are also achieved on a tight budget.

As I get older I am getting less tolerant of people who complain about the status quo and do nothing to change it.  It’s like the sports fan who thinks they know more than the coach or players on the field but doesn’t have to play the game at this level (and never has).  It’s easy to criticize the efforts of others when you don’t have the stress of competing and performing yourself.   Things always look different from the armchair than the playing field.

If you are unhappy with the way things are working in your community, I encourage you to get involved rather than just talk about it.  If you have a particular cause you care deeply about then look for ways to advance the issue and supplement the work of other like minded individuals.   You may even be able to make it a career – check out www.idealist.org or run for political office.  Our country was literally founded by a relatively small group of people who dedicated their time, talents and often their own resources to the proposition that the world can change for the better.

Martin Luther King as A Leader

Donald T. Phillips in his wonderful book, Martin Luther King on Leadership, does a nice job providing significant detail as to why Martin Luther King (MLK) was a great leader.  We often focus on the rhetoric and powerful speeches that he gave, but there is so much more substance to the man than just what he had to say.   There were many civil rights leaders who were talented with their rhetoric, but only one that had the full package of leadership skills to truly change a nation’s attitudes and its laws.  I took away the following points from Phillip’s book about MLK and his gifts as a leader:

  • He was exceptional at tailoring his rhetoric and communication style to fit the needs or particulars of a given situation;
  • He was a very active listener and was diligent about striving to understand individual motivations and the rationale behind different points of view;
  • He was a unusual student of human nature and knew how to connect with people in a positive and nonthreatening manner;
  • He truly led by example, and never asked his people to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.  He literally put his life on the line for the cause he believed in;
  • He was a talented grass roots organizer, who had an uncanny ability to get groups of people focused and acting on a common cause;
  • He was an amazing alliance builder and could stitch together strategic coalitions that were critical to what he was trying to achieve on a regional and national level;
  • He was a skilled negotiator and managed to win many incremental battles along the way by being fully prepared and compromising as needed to keep things moving in a positive direction;
  • He was a determined goal setter and planner and was very disciplined about putting the linear actions in place that would leave to goal achievement;
  • He was a staunch advocate of creativity and innovation and was always looking for better and more effective way to get things done;
  • He was a tireless learner who never stopped pushing himself to grow his own capabilities (and the skill sets of those around him);
  • When he had to be, he was incredibly decisive and made the tough decisions necessary to move the agenda forward even under extremely difficult circumstances;
  • He had incredible emotional strength and while others of his peers often succumbed to emotional triggers and got sidetracked by personal attacks, he was able to rise above the fray and stay focused on his mission (which must have been very difficult at times);

I’ve always believed that the Unites States has been blessed with incredible leaders at certain points in our history.  Martin Luther King is certainly a prime example of this.  At a time where our country was in social and political disarray and struggling to come to grips with our past, present and uncertain future, he stood up and led us in a way we needed to be led.  He pushed our nation to reexamine and live up to our core principles and values.  He appealed to our better nature both individually and collectively. He was the rare breed of nonviolent revolutionary who ended up sacrificing his own life for a cause he deemed greater than himself.   We are all fortunate that he was such an exceptional leader during this critical time in our history.  Today should be a national holiday and the man and his legacy should always be valued and acknowledged.

Daily Leadership Thought #79 – People Are Like Snowflakes

The truth in life is that every person you lead, manage, do business with or meet is an individual.  We all are unique like snowflakes with each us different in some way, shape or form.   Experts often try to categorize people or attempt to make it easy to interpret/predict their actions and motivations, but it is never quite that simple.   As a leader or manager you need to connect with the individual not just the group.  This is why leadership is more of an art than a science.

True leadership ability (often referred to as charisma) is really just the ability to make people feel special.  It involves actually listening to what people have to say and making eye contact.  It is picking up on personal cues and using positive body language in response.  It is acknowledging people’s talents and positive attributes and making them feel good about themselves.  And, it is communicating that you genuinely care about them and what they are going through – good, bad or otherwise.  Of course, life is not always a rose garden and bad things do happen.  However, the best way to navigate whatever life throws at you is to be surrounded by other people who feel their own destiny is positively aligned with your own.  It also makes the high points even better.

Take the time to personally get to know your colleagues, co-workers, clients and neighbors.  It could make all the difference in the long run and isn’t as difficult as you might think.  The truth is that “no man (or woman) is an island.” We all must coexist with one another.  Everyone including you likes to feel personally acknowledged and special.  We all also like to feel a sense of personal value and contribution.  All effective leaders understand and tap into this fact.

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