The real impact of leadership
May 22, 2014 — William James, the famed American philosopher and psychologist, once said, “When two people meet there are really six people present. There is each person as they see themselves, each person as the other person sees them, and each person as they really are.” As a leader, how do you see yourself? And, even more important, how do the people you lead see you?
Realize that every action you take and every interaction you have leaves a lasting impact on others. You can have the best of intentions, but if your impact isn’t aligned with the intention, then your leadership may not be as effective as it could be. Why? Because in the end, what matters is not who you think you are, but the experience that other people have with you.
Now before you say, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” realize that you don’t need to care what they think. You do, however, have to care about the impact you have on others, on your organization, and your industry. Your impact leaves a lasting mark. What mark do you want to leave in the world?
In order to make sure you have a positive impact and are viewed as a leader others actually want to follow, take the following steps.
Detail the kind of impact you want to have
Most leaders have never detailed their personal creed. But doing so can be incredibly powerful. Therefore, get clear about who you think you are. Who are you and what do you stand for? What do you value? What is your personal creed or stance in the roles that are most important to you in your life? How do you want to be known in your company and industry?
Once you have those questions answered, ask the most important question of all: “How do the things I just detailed show up when I’m frustrated or when things aren’t going well? Who am I then?” It’s easy to be all of those lovely things when everything is going well. But what about when things aren’t going well? How do you want to show up during the hard times? How do you want to be known when things are tough? How do you want people to experience you in the midst of adversity? Most leaders lose credibility when things are bad because they haven’t thought about who they are in those situations and the kind of impact they’ll have.
Find out how others view your impact
There are two ways to get information about your impact: You can ask for feedback either indirectly or directly. An indirect approach is doing an online and anonymous survey of some sort using a tool like Survey Monkey. While it’s simple to do, the results are not always specific.
A direct approach is to talk with someone you trust face-to-face and ask specific questions so you can get key insights. The secret to making direct questions work is to phrase them properly. If you ask someone, “Can you give me feedback on my leadership style?” you won’t get the information you need. That’s a difficult question for most people to answer because it’s not focused enough, and no one wants to hurt another person’s feelings. Additionally, if they’re not prepared for the question, they can feel like they’re being put on the spot. Therefore, ask a more focused question, like, “During today’s meeting, I think I may have sounded defensive when I told Chris that the idea would never work. How did it land for you? What was your experience of being in that meeting?”
Notice that you’re not asking for an evaluation. You’re pointing out a specific incident or behavior and asking the person about their personal experience during that moment—the impact you had. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that the person is going to tell you the truth, but it does create a condition where they’re more likely to be open.
Change your impact, not you
If the results of the feedback you receive don’t align with your personal perceptions about yourself, it’s time to make some changes—not to you, but to your impact. First, get curious about the mismatch, not furious about the information. A good question to ask yourself is, “Under what conditions might a person experience me this way?” This validates not that you agree with the feedback, but that it is a legitimate perception. Because here’s the truth: You might be a motivating, empowering, and uplifting kind of leader, but under certain conditions, even the most esteemed person can come across as harsh, cold, and defensive. So you need to get mindful of the kinds of conditions that can hinder your success. In other words, know your blind spots so you can shed some light on them.
With this new knowledge, you can take steps to consciously alter the impact you have on others. If taking one approach isn’t getting you the results you want, what other approach can you try? No matter what approach you try, you’re still the same person, just doing certain things in a different way to have a more positive impact. As long as the new approach you try supports your values and what you deem important, then you’re acting in integrity and in alignment with your goals.
There’s no avoiding it: All leaders leave a lasting impact. What’s yours? And is it the legacy you want? When you can align who you think you are with how others perceive you, you’ll be the kind of leader people naturally gravitate toward, and your enduring mark on the world will be a positive one.
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