I had a friend who came up in the profession as a speech writer. He had a way with words, but that was not the genius behind his gift. His talent (like many great writers) lied in the fact that he was a big thinker. He loved getting into issues and could immediately, easily understand the conceptual underpinning. He could make and explain connections in a way that made you think differently. His CEO loved him.
Then he was promoted to the top job. He struggled.
He accepted the job to lead the function and a sizeable team—yet he would disappear for weeks on end, locked away working on speeches. Meanwhile, his department would be in disarray as things came to a grinding halt when his people needed him to knock down barriers, make decisions and champion the work they were doing. When I asked him how that could be, he responded: “Because I’m the only one who can do it.”
I think we’ve all heard that statement before—many of us from our own lips. But if we listen to Meg or Stephanie, we know: To lead, sometimes you have to push yourself to stay out in front – even of your own thinking. One of our greatest challenges is to let go of the need to be “the one,” develop others and pass along our competencies. That’s the seed for real growth.
I shared this story with a friend and she asked, “How can you tell the difference between comfort and passion? I mean, maybe he wasn’t meant to be the guy at the top.” For me, the answer gets back to authenticity and perhaps challenges us all to think differently about leadership. Of the many lessons I’ve learned from our executive coaching team, one stands out in particular in relation to this discussion: To lead, you don’t have to be “the one” at the top of the organization chart, either. You have to let go of the need to define your leadership in terms of the hierarchy and in terms of others’ ideas of success.
My friend eventually lost his job. And that was (in a weird way) a blessing for everyone. He went back to speechwriting. He’s passionate again. His spirit soars. He feels like a success again. He was replaced by someone who takes joy in a different path. She loves developing people as much as she loves her craft. She doesn’t yearn to do the work. Rather, she delights in organizing, leading and championing those who do. That’s success too.
Sometimes it’s hard to find ways to express our authentic leadership in the organizational structures in which we find ourselves. So I’m interested in hearing from you: Have you ever taken a job that wasn’t right for you? What did you learn from the experience? What are some other ways we can lead besides being the person at the top?