What Is a Leader?

What is a leader? The answer is simple. Everyone is a leader. The real question becomes: how good of a leader are you?

I was selected for the Future Leaders of YMC in January. Being a boutique agency, we are fortunate to be nimble and provide opportunities for participants to create and execute their concepts in progressing the company forward. Each year, there is an application process which is reviewed and selected by a third party. The participants are given one year to identify a company-wide problem and to provide a solution in the form of a project. The project is implemented and the results are measured. Monthly meetings gauge the progress of the project and what challenges have arisen.

Entering the program, my goal was to grow my leadership skills in order to bring out the highest potential in others. I wanted to make a positive impact on the growth of our company. To be honest, I really wanted to learn how to get to the next level in my career. It wasn’t about a title or paycheck, but more so the feeling that I was moving forward in life.

You may notice a common theme. There are a lot of “me” or “I” statements in that last paragraph. We are now rounding out the third quarter and my biggest take away is that leadership isn’t about me.

Recently, I was in a planning session that generated a great deal of opportunities for discussion. The group was comprised of a board of directors, the CEO, and a mix of staff members. We were rolling along with discussions on how these proposed changes could impact their existing members and serving potential members. There were tons of pros, cons, potential obstacles and possible failures. Every discussion was focused on the member and the credit union. There were no discussions about the departments or how hard it was going to be for anyone. There weren’t any “I” statements and none were reflected in the thought process.

The discussion resulted in a solid game plan with a high likelihood of success due to balanced risk and a strategy to tackle the obstacles.

Post-meeting, I soaked in a little sunshine and had one of those little “aha” moments. The room had been filled with a mix of corporate levels. Not everyone had direct reports, authority, or title. It didn’t matter.

The key was not trying to be a good leader, and it wasn’t about learning the right skills. The key was forgetting ourselves and focusing on the mission and member. When you focus on the mission and the member, you are being a quality leader.

Earlier this year, I was honored to be part of a program that teaches learning about the outward mindset. The goal of an outward mindset is to shift your thinking outside of yourself. View each challenge from the other’s perspective and focus on how it relates to the mission.
The program involves exercises to examine how the full cycle of communication occurs and finding where you are contributing with an outward mindset. One of the best examples was two people sitting in a chair. When working together, if your chairs are back-to-back, you have the worst communication. If one person shifts directions, it improves. Only when you can both face the same direction, can you be effective.

Reading about a concept is one thing but understanding is it different. And this idea suddenly clicked. Making decisions based on the mission and removing yourself from the equation and goals you have is key. Identifying how you are contributing to conflict and stopping those negative behaviors is the only acceptable time to think about yourself.

You can’t make leadership happen by trying to be good at it. It’s about practice and letting it evolve naturally, instead of being forced. As Shawna Shapiro shared in a 2017 Ted Talk, “What you practice grows stronger”.

I am grateful for what I have learned so far and it’s time for more practice.

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