The Ultimate Act of Leadership

user Darren Gold
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In a world that is overwhelmed and exhausted, Dr. King’s lesson is as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. To inspire ourselves and others is the ultimate act of leadership.

One of my most valuable leadership lessons occurred during my first CEO role. I was leading a massive strategic and operational turnaround. It required intense focus and effort as we were trying to transform virtually every aspect of the business – strategy, business model, leadership team, culture, and financial performance. In my first few months leading the company, we were making great progress. Financial results were beginning to improve. The organization was excited about our new vision. There was a restored sense of purpose and a renewed commitment to our values. Yet, I was continually frustrated that the members of my team weren’t acting with the same level of urgency and intensity that I was. The more I pushed and challenged, the more my frustration grew.

I remember leaving one particularly challenging meeting and going for a long walk by myself. I was a new CEO, in fact new to the role of leadership itself. I had some innate leadership talents, but I knew something was missing. Then it hit me. I was operating from fear. I was worried that the task was too big and that I would fail. Out of this fear mindset, the primary subconscious question I had been asking myself was, “How can I get my team to do more?” This question assumed, of course, that the team wasn’t doing enough. That there was something wrong, something to fix. I knew in that moment that I needed to change the question I had been asking. Rather than “How can I get my team to do more?” I needed to ask, “How can I take responsibility for inspiring my team to do more than it even believes it is capable of doing?” This new question was born of a mindset of possibility and abundance, not fear. It assumed that my team was doing amazing things and yet capable of accomplishing even more. This single shift from holding a team accountable to inspiring my team shifted everything.

I now saw my primary role as figuring out the precise motivations for each of my direct reports. This meant that I needed to invest meaningful time in building relationships and connections. In turn, I began to figure out what it would take to inspire each individual to do his or her best work ever. Most importantly, what inspired me began to shift. It wasn’t so much about getting a team of individuals to accomplish more, although that was great. It was about seeing the absolute joy and fulfillment of an individual senior leader who realized she was capable of accomplishing more than she ever thought was possible.

To inspire comes from the Latin word inspirare, which means to breathe into. It is no coincidence that I am choosing to write this post today, a day that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We would be hard-pressed to find a better example of inspirational leadership. Dr. King didn’t so much strive to hold this nation accountable but rather sought to inspire a country to dream, to see a new possibility. He breathed life into a society exhausted by the times, fed up with poverty, war, racism, and internal strife. In a world that is overwhelmed and exhausted, Dr. King’s lesson is as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. To inspire ourselves and others is the ultimate act of leadership.

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