There’s no shortage of well-intended, smart people offering us advice on how to lead. However, if you are interested in taking that next step as a leader, it pays to silence the outside voices and spend some time mining your experiences, influences and aspirations.
Chances are, part of the answer to the leader you aspire to become in your career is hiding in plain sight via your memories of those who inspired you. These powerful examples leave an indelible mark on our lives and merit contemplation from time to time. Couple these memories with your experiences navigating challenging situations and the moments when you’ve been at your best as a person, and you have much of the data you need to articulate your aspirational leadership self.
In this article, I offer suggestions to help you mine for early influences and marry them to future aspirations to develop a clear picture of your desired leadership self. Having run this with many clients, I assure you if you do the heavy lifting outlined here, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Start by exploring your leadership inspirations
Defining the leader we aspire to be requires thoughtful reflection, a bit of soul-searching and some processing time. This is mental heavy-lifting and demands focus. Grab a journal and pen or sit down at the keyboard and think through and answer the following questions. Importantly, don’t censor yourself. Just think and write.
Start by thinking back to the leaders you’ve encountered on your journey. Who are the early-life influences that positively affected you? These are the people who challenged you, encouraged you and didn’t let you quit on yourself.
In my case, a high-school speech teacher gifted me the love of speaking, and another — a literature teacher — pushed my love of reading and writing to new levels. And the father who framed leadership as a positive aspiration for me from an early age was and is a constant influence in my life.
Think about the family members, teachers, coaches, faith leaders and anyone else who helped you level up at a challenging or important moment in your life.
After identifying the individuals, ask yourself: What did they do that helped me and ripples through my life today? If you observed one of these personal influencers navigating a challenging situation, what was it they did that left an impression on you?
I encourage you to look at behaviors in specific instances that inspired you then and now. If possible, look for patterns in their behaviors that reflected their values brought to life through actions.
What are you remembering or seeing that is important to you? What’s important to the person and leader you are today and aspire to be throughout your career?
Spend time reflecting on your best self
I run a “reflected best self” exercise with individuals in many settings, and it’s perfect for clarifying your aspirational leadership self. Answer these questions:
- For those unique moments when I believe I’ve been at my absolute best as a leader, what did I do? (Answer this one twice, but for the second time, substitute “person” for “leader.”
- In those best-self moments, what were the situations, and what role did I play?
- How did I impact others in those moments?
What I look and listen for in the stories individuals tell about their best selves are the through lines in their lives. Are they manifesting those same behaviors and values in other ways?
A reflected best self moment
At the risk of sharing too much information but offering an illustration to inspire your thinking, one of my personal best self moments took place on my first day at a new school, where I didn’t know anyone.
During recess, I observed a crowd making noise out of eyeshot of the playground monitor, and I went over to check out what was happening. I found a couple of bullies picking on a little bald kid whose nose was bloodied.
Without thinking, I barged in and threw the bullies out of the way. (I’m not a fighter by nature, but I was unusually big for my age, and I had the advantage that no one knew me. And, I was motivated by the perceived unfairness in this situation. This kid could not defend himself.)
I helped Billy dust himself off and, in the ensuing months, we became fast friends. I ultimately learned that Billy had experienced brain surgery, which explained the bald head. A time came a few months later when he didn’t return to school. One day, the teacher announced to the class Billy had passed away.
If I connect the dots in my life and leadership career, I’ve invested a great deal of myself in helping underdogs — those who others don’t believe in and who perhaps have written off for the wrong reasons. It turns out this is important to me as a leader and person.
What is it in your best self moments that are important to you?
Looking forward: Your leadership aspirations
I’ve never been fond of the tombstone or eulogy exercises so popular in programs where people are challenged to look forward in their lives. Instead, I prefer people project forward to an ending while still living. It feels much more actionable this way!
Ask yourself: “When I am finished with this chapter of my career, what do I want people to say about how I affected them?”
This question and this wording challenges you to think beyond what you did to how you truly impacted people in their careers and lives.
What’s most important to you to achieve as a leader?
Investing some time in mining for quality answers and insights via the above questions helps you set the stage for personalizing this with a future view to your leadership self. Ask and answer:
- What do I care most about doing and achieving as a leader?
- How will I guide, teach and coach?
- How will I support creating great results through others?
- How do I want to affect those I come in contact with along the way?
These questions, combined with the reflection exercises, give you the raw material of your aspirational leadership narrative. Of course, the challenge is pulling the pieces together into a coherent whole that is meaningful to you and those around you. It’s time to share your thoughts with others.
Your team wants to hear your leadership narrative
I encourage individuals to parse and synthesize the insights gained through all the questions here and share their aspirations with their team members. In a recent workshop where a group of leaders from all different backgrounds worked on this, they developed a formula to help structure the presentation.
- Share a story about the individuals who inspired you in your life.
- Describe how you want to impact those you encounter in your career.
- Share your aspirational core behaviors as a promise to them. Ask them to hold you accountable for your commitment.
- Identify your expectations for the behaviors of those around you.
This last one — identify your expectations for the behaviors of those around you — generated an exciting dialog. Ultimately, the group settled on the reality that we aren’t leaders without followers, and it’s essential for everyone to understand the expectations for their behaviors. I like it.
The bottom line
It’s my view that our world of work would be a better place if every leader took the time to think through and articulate and commit to who they aspire to be as leaders. This set of exercises helps individuals look backward to work forward.
It takes courage to stand up and say “here’s who inspired me and what I learned” and “here’s who I aspire to be and what you can expect.” It takes more courage to lay it out as a promise.
For a little bit of work and a bit of a leap of faith that people will care about your leadership perspective, you can do your part to change the world of work for the better. And maybe, when it’s all done, the things you did that affected them will become the foundation of their leadership aspirations.
Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.