Last month I had the honor of headlining the Cooperative Trust’s “Commitment to Change” podcast. The subject was servant leadership and how defense credit unions exemplify this kind of leadership each day. The podcast offered an opportunity to reflect on leadership lessons from my military career and to share some insights as a retired colonel and three-time commander. However, a recent event in my personal life has really brought home many of the principles discussed in the podcast.
Earlier this month, I became a proud grandfather. This has special meaning, and not just because it represents further development in our family tree and builds future generations. It also brings home the importance of servant leadership. Here is how:
There is a great chapter in Ken Blanchard’s latest book, Servant Leadership in Action, on “Finding Your Voice.” This chapter was written by leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner and discusses the importance of connecting one’s voice with one’s touch. In both parenting and in leadership, there is always a tendency to want to “do” something that will positively affect the outcome. There is nothing wrong with this impulse. People can and should do worthwhile things for their children and in their jobs. However, in the long run, that is not what really matters.
What really matters is who and what you are. This comes through in your voice and is a multiplier for anything you endeavor to accomplish. Very little is accomplished by going through the motions of leadership when doing those things are not reflective of who you are. While doing something is better than not doing anything at all, if you want to maximize your impact, what you are doing must align with your authentic self from which credibility flows.
The first time I held my new grandchild, it was important to establish both a gentle touch along with reassuring tones with this amazing child. Any child psychologist, pediatrician, or teacher will tell you that “the child has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.” What is not immediately apparent is that this statement is also at the core of becoming a better leader.
Connecting your voice to your touch is crucial in establishing credibility. That is why I place such a high value on shaking hands at the beginning and end of any professional conversation. While COVID-19 has temporarily ended this important leadership custom, credibility still lies at the heart of other leadership customs: practicing what you preach, looking people in the eye when announcing your intentions, and actually doing what you say you will do. I wish leadership was that easy.
Yet, after a while I can guarantee “it” will suddenly happen. You will notice your presentation is really kind of lame, meetings will start to become boring, and encounters with fellow team members will feel kind of empty. In fact, you have a scary thought that all you are doing is mouthing the words and actions that your boss expects you to do.
You wake up and realize that the real “you” is not truly connecting on a personal level with those on your team. Yet, you persist because that is what you were taught. Unfortunately, people can see right through you, and you will realize there is a credibility crisis on the horizon. This is a danger which all leaders eventually encounter and must learn to overcome.
All I can say is don’t give up! While this can be a terrifying moment in your leadership journey, it is a necessary obstacle that only you can overcome. The only way through this is to find out exactly who you are and to determine what your true voice is. This takes time and lots of introspection. However, it is something all leaders experience.
If I were assigning homework (and maybe I am), I would ask you who you are and what is your true voice. Then, I would have you write and revise your answers in a journal. Each day, week, month and year, you will find a different you as you experience new things and get a bit older. Heck, I am in my early 50s, in my second career, and still on my inward/outward journey. Yet, I still have much to learn and share. You can do the same!
Also, please remember this is not the time to forget all the fundamentals of leadership you learned early on in your career—just because you found out you were not as authentic as you hoped. In fact, these fundamentals matter even more now! My advice is to re-visit the books, materials, and podcasts you used at the beginning of your leadership journey and adapt them to your voice. I believe you will find each of these to offer an entirely new set of insights the second and third time you read them—hopefully with plenty of life experiences in between.
Here are a few important points from the book mentioned earlier:
- Authentic servant leadership flows from the inside out. It does not come from the outside in.
- Inside-out leadership is about discovering who you are, what drives you to do what you do, and what gives you the credibility to lead others.
- Inside-out leadership is about becoming the author of your own story and the maker of your own history.
- Inside-out leadership is also the only way to respond to what your people want from you. And what is that?
What they most want is to know who you genuinely are.
I have a brand-new grandchild and am excited to be alive. Credibility has a whole new meaning for me as I see my family develop and what that means for future generations. I am also thankful for the opportunity to experience leadership from a fresh perspective using many of the tools learned to this point. Mostly, I hope what I have shared can help you find your voice and bolster your credibility as a leader.