Leadership is often about making one big decision – a decision to make many consistent small, positive decisions. It’s important to recognize the profoundly positive impact that can come from seemingly insignificant actions.

When I speak publicly, my focus is on sharing stories that I hope highlight how the biggest determinants of what people think of us, and our organizations, are not the things on which we focus the most time and money.

I’ve discovered that it is not the goals we set, or even the goals we reach that most significantly shape peoples’ impressions of us.

Rather, it’s how we choose to go about accomplishing our goals on an everyday basis that plays the most significant role in shaping whether or not we are perceived as leaders.

Leadership: How to Win

I’m often successful at getting people to re-frame their idea of what leadership means, but not always. This became extraordinarily clear to me at a conference I went to.

I had just finished speaking at a major Canadian business school when a young man came up to me and said, “Drew, I’ve seen you speak three times this year, and I really like the stories that you tell.”

I thanked him, only to have him throw me quite the curve-ball.

“Do you want to know what’s wrong with you?” He asked. “You never tell anybody how to win.”

Confused, I asked him “I’m sorry, win what?”

He rolled his eyes at me, and in an exasperated voice, said, “Come on, this is a game we’re playing here. I’ve known that from the very first time that somebody gave me a grade. I mean, why would they be grading us and ranking us if wasn’t to make sure that the people at the top got something the people at the bottom didn’t get?”

“The fact is, there is only so much money, and there are only so many jobs, and if I don’t get them somebody else will. Drew, you’re not doing anybody any favors by telling them that there is some other reality than that. All you’re doing is setting them up to get destroyed in the game. If you really want to help people, you’ve got to stop doing that, and you’ve got to start telling people how to win.”

And he walked off.

Don’t Play that Game

I stood there stunned, but I realize now that he was totally right. In all of my presentations, I never spent any time telling anyone how to win that game.

And perhaps if I was going to take an hour out of people’s lives, I owed it to them to at least give them my best shot at telling them how to win that game.

So here, for all of you, is my best attempt at indicating how to win that game.

Please don’t play that game. I don’t believe there are any winners in that game. There are only people who have been beaten.

I fear that once we accept the idea that life is a game, we inherently buy into the idea that there are winners, and there are losers.

And I believe the philosophy of winners versus losers leads us to believe that we’re living in a world of scarcity, a perspective I believe stifles true leadership and leads to so many of the things that we are not proud of in this world.

Scarcity is what leads to greed, jealousy, gossip mongering, and the bullying that begins on our playground and continues well up into our boardrooms.

Economy of Scarcity

So much of the work that I do now is to try to convince organizations and individuals to decide to live in a different type of economy. Right now, I believe that we are living in an economy of scarcity, and I believe that we can choose to live in an economy of abundance.

Maybe there are only so many jobs, and maybe there is only so much money, but I honestly believe that there is no limit to the amount of satisfaction, self-worth, and happiness available to us if we are able to separate those things from our paychecks and from our job titles.

I spent a decade-and-a-half of my life in higher education, and the problem is that we are never taught to look at the world that way. In my time in the education system, I’ve come to believe that there are lessons that are learned though never explicitly taught.

And one of the most powerful of those lessons is “the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is money.”

The result? Thousands of people have been trained to chase money and jobs as the primary goals in their lives, and to use money and jobs as the primary indicators of whether or not they are “leaders”.

I was one of those people. I chased jobs and money as my gateways to happiness. And I was good at it. I had good jobs and made a lot of money at a young age.

And I was tremendously unhappy.

Life Goals?

Looking back, I realize my unhappiness was inspired by getting up and going to work every day to try to impress somebody I worked for so they could give me my life goals.

I realize now, if we want to foster more leaders, we have to teach more people that money and jobs make lousy life goals – because ultimately you’re not in charge of them.

You see, how hard you work and how well you work will always play a role in how much money you make. But as long as you work for someone else (and let’s face it, most of us will spend most of our lives working for somebody else), how much money you make is somebody else’s decision.

If you get promoted, or more responsibility, or a bigger job title, it is because someone else has the power to give you those things. And when we tie our fundamental life goals to someone else’s whims, I think that’s tremendously dis-empowering.

The fact most people know (at least subconsciously) is the things they are ultimately chasing, the things they believe will make them happy, have to be handed down from someone else. This is one of the reasons so few people are comfortable identifying themselves as leaders.

Deep down, we know that the things that we want in our lives have to be given to us from someone else, it’s awfully hard to feel like you’re leading.

Economy of Abundance

I believe a life in an economy of abundance starts when we say to ourselves, “I will no longer create goals in my life that can only be handed to me by someone else.” I believe the ability to truly feel like a leader begins when you embrace a single goal:

“I will endeavor to add tremendous value in every interaction of which I am a part.”

But what does adding value actually mean? Adding value means trying to give someone something they didn’t even know they needed, and something they didn’t even know they wanted, every time you interact with them.

Adding value means no longer asking, “what do I have to do to get a great job?”, or “what do I need to do to shine brighter than everyone around me?”

Adding value instead means asking, “Who do I need to be to be the type of person who is great at jobs?”, and “Who do I need to be to be able to make everyone around me shine even brighter?”

Adding Value

When you ask, “What do I have to do?”, you are focusing on pleasing other people.

When you ask, “who do I need to be?”, you are focusing on what you expect from yourself, and that is a fundamental shift in your understanding of who is ultimately in charge of your life.

I believe true leaders do not treat jobs and money as goals in and of themselves. Leaders accept that jobs and money are the natural by-products that come as a result of adding tremendous value.

As such, it is far better to put your energy, time, and focus into figuring out how you can add tremendous value instead of how you can make money. The money you make is a by-product of the value you add.

This is not to say that living in an economy of abundance requires giving up on dreams of business success or personal financial wealth. It does not mean that you cease to focus on profit.

Rather, it means acknowledging that profit is only one type of value, and whoever adds the most value will inevitably reap the biggest profits. Not just financially, but emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually as well.

If we can find a way to shift focus from profit to value, I think we can begin to generate far more positive behavior, and as such, far more leaders.

How Can Leadership Add Value?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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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.