The Best Leaders Answer These 3 Questions


In last week’s post, we talked about how leadership is an inside-out craft.  To effectively manage all the nuance and complexity of our roles, deliver sustainable high-performance,  and fulfill our commitment to show up for people in a meaningful way — we need a personal leadership model that comes from within.  A model defines our approach in a way that uniquely works for us, and anchors us to our most closely held beliefs and principles; it keeps us grounded when times are tough and energizes us to keep moving forward when things are going well. If we do the necessary work to develop and define our leadership philosophy, the resulting model can be our most reliable support system throughout our leadership journey — providing strength, courage, discipline, and accountability.

We need a personal leadership model that comes from within.

Since it is clearly worthwhile to take a deep dive into developing a model, how do we start? What can we do today that will take us where we need to be tomorrow?  While there are lots of exercises we can do to cultivate our model it’s important that we do some serious reflection first. Before we do anything else, we’ve got to answer some essential questions that will set us correctly on our path.

You’ll need two things to get started:

  • A pen and paper (or an iPad or laptop, anything that allows you to record your thoughts).
  • A commitment. This means time blocked out on your calendar to reflect on these important questions and make note of your thoughts, reactions, and insights. Give yourself at least an hour to start.

Last week, we introduced the first two questions of leadership – the two questions of the head. Now, we’ll ask you to tackle some thought-provoking questions that are even more personal and probative – the three questions of the heart. These can be very challenging, especially for more cerebral leaders, as they ask you to think with your heart instead of your intellect (a counterintuitive notion indeed). As you work through these questions, keep in mind that this type of introspection is a continuous improvement process. You won’t simply block off one hour, jot down some thoughts, and promptly declare, “mission accomplished.” You’ll revisit these questions repeatedly over time and will continually refine your thinking and crystallize your model.  (It took years of reflection, practice, and studying for Doug to arrive at the ConantLeadership Flywheel – but it was well worth the effort).

Questions of the Heart.

The best leaders know that the prevailing wisdom of, “it’s not personal; it’s just business” is false, even dangerous. In fact, as Doug and his co-author, Mette Norgaard, reveal in their bestselling book TouchPoints – the best leaders make their work intensely personal. Because leadership is all about people. It would be difficult to engage, inspire, empower, develop, or influence people if we brought a purely impersonal approach. We might appear cold, calculating, or even robotic. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our heads at all. Of course we should! Logic, intellect, and expertise are important tools that leaders must leverage in their decision making. But alone, they are insufficient. Leaders must also bring their hearts to their craft if they hope to produce extraordinary results. These questions will help leaders better connect with a “heart-based” approach to leadership so they can form a cohesive model that harmoniously balances the heart and the head.

  1. Why do I choose to lead?

This is one of the most urgent questions you will consider on your leadership journey. Many people become leaders because it is the next logical step in their career trajectory. They are aware of what they hope to get from leading (new challenges, more high-profile assignments, better pay, increased prestige) but are often woefully unaware of what they plan to give. Sure, they’ve got a reason to lead on paper: it’s good for the career, it’s a step up etc. But they don’t have a purpose.

The best leaders make their work intensely personal.

Without a clear purpose, it is unlikely the long hours, the stress, the tough challenges, the endless travel, budget and personnel demands will be worth it to you in the long run. But when you’ve really thought about what drives you, what inspires you to wake up in the morning, and how your contributions make an impact to the people close to you and to the world around you — you’ll always have a reservoir of energy and motivation to draw upon. When you understand the “why” you’ll connect more deeply with the day-to-day “what” that your job entails. And when faced with adversity, your purpose will provide endless fortitude and vitality.

So think carefully about these questions. How you want to spend your leadership life? What is the work you feel called to do? What is your dream? How do you want to leverage your special gifts and interests to make the world a better place? What does “improving the world” look like to you? What is your quest? What are you working towards? Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Afterwards, try to summarize your thinking in a few sentences, beginning with the words “My purpose is . . . “ You won’t get it perfect on the first try. Or even the second or third. But you’ll have a very solid starting point.

  1. What is my code?

Once you have a better understanding of your purpose, you’ll need to ensure you work towards fulfilling that purpose with integrity. Leaders need a set of principles to live by. Without a clear code that guides you, your consistency is in jeopardy, and employees may regard you as wishy-washy or untrustworthy. Conversely, when you have a definitive code – people know exactly what you stand for and how you choose to walk in the world. For better or worse.

To unearth your code, you’ll have to think back on your life and career thus far. Can you think of a time where you took a principled stance even though it may have been risky, inconvenient, or maybe even damaging to your career? Think about times you feel certain you behaved with integrity even when it was very challenging to do so: times when you went against the grain, had an uncomfortably candid conversation, or defended an unpopular decision. It’s worth devoting significant mental energy to reflecting on these moments – they hold the key to the beliefs that define your character. It was in those moments when you bravely spoke up that you revealed what matters to you, even if you weren’t consciously aware of it at the time.

When you have a definitive code – people know exactly what you stand for and how you choose to walk in the world.

Contemplate — what was the principle at play? What did you feel so strongly was worth defending that you knew it was worth the discomfort? When it really comes down to it, what was at the heart of the matter? Now, think about a time when you know you should have taken a stand but you didn’t. Why didn’t you? What were the consequences? As you carefully examine your views about these moments, a clearer picture of your code will emerge and come into fuller focus. When you’re done, try to summarize your thinking by writing down as many beliefs or principles as you can think of. It can be a bulleted list, a bunch of run-on sentences, or maybe just a short paragraph. At the top of your summary, write the words, “I believe . . .”

  1. How well do I walk the talk?

In each leadership moment, we are tested. People are paying attention: to our demeanor, to our words, to our non-verbal cues. They are searching our actions for proof that we can be trusted, that we’ve got their back, that we are authentic and present. And we owe it to them to pass the test, to show up, to lead to the best of our ability – in each and every interaction. We become what we repeatedly do. So to become trustworthy leaders, we must do what we say we’re going to do. And do it well. Over and over again. That’s how we progress into the leaders we were meant to be.

Fortunately, the work you did in questions one and two sets the stage nicely for question three. Since you’ve distilled your purpose and clarified your code — you have your own words to test yourself against. Think about what you wrote down. What did you say you believed? How do your actions today prove or disprove what you wrote? If you say you value candor, do you actually respond positively in the moment when people are direct and honest? If you wrote that you are committed to empowering people to do their jobs, do you actually allow people to do so, or do you find yourself micro-managing or second-guessing people?

We become what we repeatedly do.

Be painfully honest with yourself. Confront the brutal facts of your leadership as it stands right now. You’ll likely uncover some areas where there is misalignment between what you say and what you do. And the good news is,  now you’re poised to conscientiously correct it. The more you reflect on what matters, the more you can hold yourself accountable. It should become a practice. Each day, or week, ruminate on how well you passed your personal test. Ask yourself, did I do what I say? Was I true to myself? As long as you are consistently aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly – you can keep getting better!

After you’ve gone through the questions once:

Try to apply the wisdom you gleaned in your very next interaction. Then, give yourself some time off from the exercise and revisit it again when you feel ready. The more you think about these questions, the better you’ll get, and the closer you’ll be to a customized leadership model that works for you.

As you work through these questions of the heart, we’d love to hear from you. Drop any enlightening insights you uncover as you go through the exercise in the comments.

The Best Leaders Answer These 3 QuestionsTo continue the learning, you can explore all five vital questions in greater depth in Doug’s book, co-authored with Mette Norgaard, Touchpoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments. Also, for a post focusing on the question, ‘Why do I choose to lead” click here. You can explore a post about the question, “What is my code?” here. And, you can read more about the question, “How well do I walk the talk?” here.

career development, Grow or Die, introspection, leadership development, leadership homework, learning, questions of the heart, reflection,