Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

A few years ago, at the end of a first-year university workshop on leadership theory with a heavy focus on the ideas of transformational and servant leadership, a young woman who had been sitting near the front approached me.

“Sir,” she said shyly, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“What exactly is it you don’t understand?” I asked.

“I’m afraid it’s leadership sir.”

“Well,” I said with a small smile, “I wouldn’t worry too much about that – we have all semester to explore what leadership means.”

She shook her head.

“That’s just it sir. I understood leadership before I came today, and now I’m afraid I don’t.”

I’ve come to hope that many people walk out of my workshops feeling that is the case, but at the time, I was quite upset as someone endeavoring to be an educator.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “I’m an international student. And in my country, we’re told that the smartest people make the best leaders. I was always taught the smartest people are the ones who get the best grades, so getting the best grades is what earns you leadership.”

“But,” she continued, “what you talked about today makes me think that leadership means something different. But it’s more complicated. I just want to know what ‘leadership’ means in simple English.”

I smiled with tremendous confidence and opened my mouth to provide her with my well-rehearsed and carefully thought-out personal definition of leadership.

And nothing came out!

My mind was a blank. I realized that not only did I lack a well-rehearsed answer to her question; I lacked any answer at all.

Get Some Clarity

I realized that I knew the theories of leadership, that I could tell stories of leadership and that I could help people identify and develop the leadership skills that were integral to leadership. What I didn’t have was my own, personal definition of what leadership meant, “in simple English.”

What I had come across was one of those questions to which you’re certain you know the answer…until someone actually asks the question.

It genuinely shook me, as leadership was a value I was aiming to embody every day of my life, yet I found myself unable to articulate exactly what it meant to me. I realized that while I recognized many of the values I wanted to embody in my life, I hadn’t actually defined them.

I went home that night, and at the age of 28, decided for the first time to actually try to make myself present in a solitary exploration of my values. That young woman had made me realize that leadership was a value I wanted to embody every day in my life.

This was something I had always intrinsically known, but had never actually taken the time to understand.

I realized there’s a distinct difference between recognizing something and understanding it. And I determined I wanted to be more deliberate in thinking about what it was I wanted to stand for in my everyday behavior.

List Your Values

And so I took a few hours to engage in an activity I recommend to everyone: I sat down and listed the values I wanted to embody every day in my life. The list took shape quickly: “leadership”; “respect”; “transparency”; “accountability”; “passion” to name just a few.  At times, I stopped myself and asked, “wait…is that really a ‘value’?”  But then I realized I was okay with seeing a “value” as being any concept or belief that I felt could positively influence my behavior.

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Where things slowed down is in the next step: I looked at each value in turn and asked myself, “If that young woman came up to me and asked me to explain, in ‘simple English’, what this word means, what would I say?”

Over and over again I was forced to come to grips with the fact that these ideas, these “fundamental values” in my life, lacked clear definition for me.  I knew they represented something important to me, and that they certainly sounded good, but it proved a much more difficult, though ultimately rewarding, process than I anticipated.

Step three was even tougher.  Once I was happy with my definition for each value, I asked myself, “What is one thing I can do each day to make sure that I embody this particular value?”

However, that last step was crucial – because it allowed me to clearly identify targets that represented the realization of my goal of “living my values”. I believe that leadership comes from creating opportunities to live your values, as well as living them when the opportunity arises, or the situation demands it.

Honestly, I’ve come to see setting goals as planning celebrations – you’re identifying a concrete moment when you’re allowed to say to yourself, “well done.”

3 Steps

I encourage all of you to take a moment soon to take those same three steps:

  1. Create as exhaustive a list as you can of the “values I hope to embody every day of my life”.
  2. Create as comprehensive a definition as possible for what each of those values means to you.  Ask yourself, “if someone who spoke another language asked me to explain what this value means in ‘simple English’, what would I say?”
  3. Identify 1-3 actions you could take every day to ensure you demonstrate that value.

If we don’t take the time to define the things that we hope will define us, we’re always going to feel as if we aren’t living up to the person we want to be.  After all, how do you give yourself credit for hitting a target you’ve never actually identified?

If you don’t clearly define what “accountability” means to you, you may be embodying it every single day, but never giving yourself the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate that fact.

General Patton encouraged us to “accept the challenge, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.”  However, unless we define at least some version of “victory”, the exhilaration and fulfillment that propels us towards our next goal never materializes.
Taking the time to define the values you wish to embody in your life, and identifying activities you can engage in each day, is establishing what a victory actually means.

What Does Leadership Mean to You?

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Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.