WHY Do You Lead??? A Leadership Essential LeadershipMost Popular

October 5th, 2014 by Spencer Penhart leave a comment

It’s perhaps the most important question you can ask yourself as a leader.

I remember when I was a new sales manager, completely excited for my new opportunity. I was well prepared for the business side of the role, and dripping with hunger to take the world by storm and have my team become #1 in our sales rankings. And… my first few years were mediocre at best. I pushed my team extremely hard, had tracking spreadsheets for tracking spreadsheets, and micro-managed everything I could. I wasn’t trying to be a bad boss, I was just trying to drive results. Neither I nor my team was happy, and we certainly weren’t #1 in the rankings.

Whether you have been leading large teams for decades, or you are a brand new manager making your first foray into the leadership world, I can assure you from research and personal experience that the sooner you determine the answer to this question, the more successful you will be:

WHY do you lead???

This question gets to your mission (or greater purpose) for leading people, and it’s not as simple as it sounds. The answer is vitally important to your success as a leader, as it directly impacts the specific actions and philosophies you deploy to help your team perform. The answer is very personal, and will be different for everyone. However, until you can answer this question with clarity, you run a significant risk: your management approach may be too much about YOU. In my experience working with leaders across various industries, I can tell you that the vast majority of leaders and managers (at least 80%) don’t have a clear answer to this question. It’s a major problem – here’s why:

  • Purpose is key to a leader’s effectiveness. Two of the most important competencies of today’s leaders are their ability to drive employee engagement and build a positive, accountable culture. Both of these competencies are rooted in having a larger purpose both professionally for the business, and personally for your employees. Simply put, it is impossible to maximize engagement and culture without a well-defined purpose and mission, thereby making your team feel part of something bigger. If your purpose is solely about the business metrics – or even worse, YOUR success, YOUR metrics, YOUR career aspirations – you’re in trouble. These things aren’t bad; everyone should be concerned about their own needs. But if that’s your only purpose, it won’t inspire the people who actually drive your business results: your team!

Think this isn’t important? The new 2014 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study (26 countries including the U.S., 1637 companies/organizations, n = 32,000+ respondents) shows that on average, only 40% of employees are fully engaged. For all the non-math kids like me, that means that nearly two-thirds of employees range somewhere between disliking their job, disliking their company, or actively working against their organization’s goals. This problem costs companies exorbitant amounts of money in lost productivity and related costs (Gallup puts their U.S. estimate at $450-550 billion annually). And, decades of research shows that 50-70% of employees’ work climate and resulting engagement stems from ONE person: their direct manager. As such, the first step in your journey to improving your leadership skills (and hence growing your business) should be to begin defining your leadership purpose.

  • Purpose enables you to actually enjoy management: As anyone who has managed people for more than five minutes will tell you, whatever your company is paying you is nowhere near enough to compensate for the amount of hand-holding and babysitting involved in managing even a high-performing team. If you are attracted to management solely because of the increased pay or prestige, you will quickly see how rapidly those shiny objects lose their luster.

Clarifying your leadership purpose gives you a reason to endure the necessary but ultimately unsatisfying minutia of management, in the name of maximizing the aspects of the role you value and enjoy most. It transforms your work into an expression of your natural self, which enables you to lead authentically from your values rather than the way you think you have to, or have been told to.

Purpose also gives you the energy to endure the inevitable rough patches every leader encounters. Believe me, when times are tough and performance is down, when your board or boss is pressuring you, when your burnout-o-meter is red-lining, it will be your passion for your purpose that gives you the commitment to fight through that adversity, re-engage your team, and find success once again.

How to develop your “Why”: Start thinking about the following items:

  • Your values: Teams tend to take on the personality of their leader. As such, it’s important to clarify what is important to you, and why. HOW do you want you and your team to conduct their business?
  • Your strengths: What unique skills, knowledge, and attributes do you have that you can teach your team to help them grow both their individual competence as well as their teamwork?
  • Your legacy: Imagine your retirement party years from now. Side note: Retirement parties sound like a fun honor, but they’re actually terrifying, because you have to come to grips with 1) the magnitude of impact you have or have not had in your career, and 2) the fact that you’ll be dead soon, relatively speaking. Ask anyone who has had a retirement party – there are only two factors that determine its awesomeness: the amount of people you helped along the way, and the extent to which you helped them. Period. So when developing your leadership purpose, envision a large group of grateful people at your retirement party- what do hope they will be saying about you?
  • Your sentence should sound something like, “I lead because I enjoy ____________. I want to help ___________. I do this because _____________.”

As an example, here is my leadership “Why” or purpose: “I lead because I enjoy helping people be healthier, happier and more successful. I want to help each employee achieve her/his maximum potential both professionally and personally, and teach them how to be winners. I do this because it’s good for business, it’s good for the employee, their family & friends, and it’s ultimately good for the world.”

Trust me, it took me years of thought and self-reflection to land on that. If you think that’s goofy and weird, no problem. Your answer doesn’t have to be anything like mine; all that matters is that yours is meaningful and authentic for YOU. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time, you will make hundreds of iterations over the years. Just get something that works for now, and empowers you and your people to be great.

Eventually, my team and I were able to turn our performance around and become #1 in our sales rankings for an extended period of time. My team deserves the credit here, and most of them remain dear friends to this day. But each would tell you that it wasn’t until I found my leadership purpose, and in turn enabled them to find theirs, that our success could take hold and flourish.

So I ask you… why do YOU lead??? I look forward to your thoughts and comments below!

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