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Leading with meaning and purpose

Imagine the situation. You are in a role that was a big step up, in a dynamic and complex environment. The portfolio is large with some serious deliverables, and multiple teams that you are responsible for. Yet you feel like an imposter. You think that you may get found out at any moment. Your people look to you for guidance and leadership, and it’s sometimes hard to know how to respond. Worse still, your heart isn’t really in it.

This was my reality 25 years ago. I had grabbed the opportunities for progression too enthusiastically and without paying attention to what I really enjoyed doing, and hadn’t yet built a solid base to work from. I had good skills and a decent track record, however there was something missing in what I offered. I didn’t have enough resources to fall back on, and as I didn’t know what I didn’t know I didn’t even have the language to describe the gap. Needless to say this episode didn’t end well, although in the longer term it turned out to be a seminal development moment for my career, one of Bill George’s ‘crucible moments’.

Having a clear sense of what it means to deliver through our people and the implications this has for our leadership is one of the key challenges of the 21stCentury. The current crop of talent has wildly different expectations for career pathways, tenure, the way that people connect and work with each other, and even the role of organisations in the modern age.

We believe that understanding meaning and purpose, knowing who we are and how this inspires followership is at the heart of building a thriving working culture that engages, excites and retains top talent.

If we are serious about the genuine engagement of our people we think that understanding why others respond well to you can’t be got at by using a prescriptive leadership model or framework. Rather, it needs to be determined leader by leader based on reflection, recollection, imagination, and discussion, resulting in a person-centred response that has maximum meaning and resonance.

Inspired by the ancient Japanese concept of Ikigai we have developed an approach using some simple framing questions to realise a clear and convincing response about why anyone would follow your leadership.

A Your superpowers - What are you great at technically, in your working relationships, in how you lead?

B What got you here - What have been your formative experiences? What are your personal values?

C What others value - Which qualities do your colleagues value? Your clients? Your organisation?

D What the world needs - How do you want your work to relate to the community and the building of a better society?

I first used this approach over 15 years ago to help me clarify my own thinking about the work that I wanted to specialise in within the broader leadership development arena. I had an emerging ‘felt sense’ of what it might be, and strength of conviction about why it was important, and yet I struggled at the time to really articulate it in a way that was clear for others to understand. Working through an early version of this framework really helped me to make career and personal development decisions to move me forward to do the work that I love, with my impact and ability to influence increasing as a result. Let me share my example, begun in the early 2000’s and refined from time-to-time ever since, as I grow older and more experienced, and maybe just a little bit wiser:

A Your superpowers - Individual whole person coaching. Facilitating groups. Deep listening, challenge and support. Creating psychologically and emotionally safe spaces to do great work with people. Perception and instinct. Systemic awareness.

B What got you here - Early loss of my father. Career meltdown in my early thirties where I learned about humility and conviction. Brilliant teachers and mentors who helped me recognise my passion for people. Great colleagues who believed in me. Working internationally. Running a P&L. My values of truth, freedom, love, and compassion.

C What others value - Breadth of experience. The challenge I give my clients. Giving space for people to be really heard. Stories. Practical advice and ideas. Mirroring. Truth and courage. Wisdom.

D What the world needs - I am helping build a better society by working with leaders to make great decisions with a good attitude, that take account of multiple and sometimes competing needs, including ecological.

The first question invites you to be clear about what you are really good at. You are good at things you enjoy doing, and that you are passionate about. These are the skills and talents that others admire, and that you may take for granted. It is easy to forget that what you find easy others may find difficult. Gallup research tells us that the most powerful factor in high performance and work satisfaction is the opportunity to do what you do best every day.

· What is it that you are doing when you are doing your best?

· What technical skills are you using, what interpersonal skills, what leadership skills have had the most positive impact for you?

The second question asks you to reflect on the formative experiences that have shaped your current attitudes and behaviours. These are the really significant life and professional events that you have taken the biggest lessons from. Whether they were a success, or more likely failures and challenges, they were learning experiences that were crucial for your development.

· What happened and why was it significant for you?

· What did you learn from the experience?

· How do these experiences shape your approach in the here and now?

We think that it is also very important to know our personal values. Values represent what we stand for, and we think of them as standards of behaviour or principles, the important rules for how you live your life and what you value in others. Our ‘North Star’ if you like for when we are in a difficult situation. Examples could be truth, justice, honesty, keeping your word, humour, and of course many more. These are usually hard won, and likely to have been forged out of the heat of our formative life experiences.

· What are the four or five values that are really important to you?

· Why are they important to you?

This helps you to be really clear for yourself and for others about what you will tolerate and what you won’t. Over time as you work with our values you will embody and come to be known for them without necessarily having to talk about them. They will become a core part of you we are, what you are known for, and what it is about you that others can engage with emotionally and psychologically.

Questions one and two are internally oriented, and as we move into questions three and four we see that we now look to the outside rather than to the inside.

Question three asks you to consider what it is about the way that you operate that is valued by other people. Step into their shoes as you consider the following questions;

· What do colleagues appreciate about you?

· What does the firm value about you?

· What do clients value, be they external in the market, or internal clients?

The answers to these questions help you to apply your skills and talents with confidence and maximum impact, knowing that when you act you are pushing at open doors. By considering yourself from the point of view of those that you expect to have an impact with, or who pay you to have an impact, means that you can consider what is needed with what you currently offer.

Question four takes our perspective out wider still. In his book ‘Start With Why’, Simon Sinek explains the importance of knowing why we are doing something before we consider what to do and how to do it. This work resonates strongly with us. We are finding more and more leaders wanting to get clearer about their vision in response to the ‘why do we exist’ question. If we apply this principle to a leadership role it naturally takes us to some key questions:

· Why have you taken on leadership responsibility?

· How does your work have an impact on your broader community, and society in general?

You could limit our response to the first question in traditional pay/status/career/lifestyle terms. This is understandable, however it isn’t of itself engaging to other people, and certainly not as engaging as having an idea of how you contribute to a broader and more ambitious purpose. In answering this you are aiming at the heart as much as you are aiming at the head. These questions are an opportunity to be idealistic, and to feel unconstrained by present-day realities. And it also needs to make real-world sense to you and to other people.

Reflection for Confucius is the noblest of his three paths to wisdom (the other two being imitation and experience). Our work maybe has a little less nobility, however we agree that the skill of reflection is incredibly useful. It is absolutely not a multi-task activity, so put the tech away, shut the door, grab a notepad, and for a time pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you work through the questions. Don’t short change yourself by settling for the easy answer or what you think others expect you to say.

Some of the answers may be elusive to begin with. Slowly they will coalesce and weave themselves into a growing sense of what you are about. This will lead to a personal leadership proposition, a few sentences presented as a living and breathing statement of intent. Share your answers with people that you trust. Get feedback and refine them. Say them out loud. Let this work inspire you and put a smile on your face, and carry it with you lightly as you go about your work.

As you become clearer about yourself it becomes an invitation for others to join you as you take your business or function forward. As you become confident in your intent you will start to embody it, and once you do that then magical things can happen as you engage with other people.

If you want to know more or experience this work for yourself please get in touch.

Phil Roberts, Partner, HCubed. Leadership facilitator, coach and mentor.

HCubed is a collective of experienced leadership practitioners and consultants, offering services in consulting, coaching and facilitation, and mastery development.


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