Painting of The Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran

Is Your Leadership Soul-crushing or Soulful?

As we painfully make our way through the national and global crisis brought on by COVID-19, opportunities emerge for you to reflect on the leader that is you.

Yes, you are the razor-sharp world-beater that your team, colleagues and clients see – on top of your game, ready to accept the next challenge. And you’re also the person in your pajamas, slightly disheveled with messy bedhead, playing board games with your family. You can be both, but yet, they’re not two different people, are they? These are simply different aspects of one complete person.

At its essence, business is about human connection. And to make human connections requires you to show your humanness – your soul. One definition of a soul is ‘a person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.’ Many leaders hide their true selves, showing only a professional identity at work. What can be unlocked if people first saw your humanity, saw you as a soulful leader? When you can answer this question and act on it, this will be far more powerful than any title you will ever have.

A Penny to Think About

The process of becoming a soulful leader reminds me of the aging process of a copper penny.

Let me take you back to October 22, 1982, when the last copper penny was stamped at the Denver Mint. If you had grabbed one of those shiny, newly minted pennies off the press, walked out of the Mint and threw it into the street on that crisp fall Denver day it would have taken the snow, rain and the Rocky Mountain sun 20 years to give that copper penny a rich, green and blue patina. While there is something irresistibly attractive about the mirror-like finish of that new penny, there is a deeper, more soulful beauty to be found in the weathered luster that the penny would develop over time.

Image of a heavily patinaed pennyWe are like copper pennies when we start our careers, typically in our 20’s – the bright young things, promising talent with yet unproven potential. As we develop those skills, gain that experience and choose the path of leadership, we move into the mechanics of management – holding our team accountable for results, directing work and executing on business strategies meted out from above. We learn how to effectively manage others, but the ‘becoming’ of a leader is still a journey we continue on as we step into more substantive leadership roles with higher expectations, bigger budgets and more challenging targets. (Spoiler alert: that leadership journey never ends).

Somewhere on the horizon we believe if the title is lofty enough, the responsibilities broad enough, the decisions critical enough, we will have arrived at leadership. The demands of a role by themselves are not enough to draw out great leadership in each one of us. Competencies such as strategy formulation, business insight, and managing complexity are essential and valuable skills of the leader, but do not constitute leadership. If having these skills was sufficient to perform effectively as a company CEO or a firm Managing Partner, all leaders in these top roles would be shining examples to emulate and aspire to. We have seen or heard about too many that fall short.

To avoid becoming what I’ve heard one Fortune 30 CEO describe as ‘lazy millionaires,’ too comfortable with hefty salaries, bonus plans and stock options to rock the company boat, one needs to be willing to take a courageous stand for the deeply held values and principles that are the lifeblood of strong leadership. Understanding your values and who you are at your essence takes time and significant reflection. Expressing what you stand for can involve personal risk and cause you to fall out of favor with the ‘yes’ men and women around you.

One of the things that has always surprised me in my coaching work is that even highly experienced senior executives can be at a loss for describing who they are as a leader. They inevitably lean on their formal role within the organization instead of taking a hard look at the person staring back at them in the mirror.

So how do you become a more soulful leader? I believe it takes three key steps:

  • Get clear on your values
  • Decide what you stand for
  • Grow soulfulness in the leaders you lead

Let’s look at each step in more detail.

First, get clear on your values

You quickly recognize when leaders are not clear on their own values. The pattern of their decision making is unpredictable – it feels inconsistent, easily influenced and driven by whims because it lacks grounding in any core beliefs. Without values leaders don’t have an internal compass with which to navigate the many business and people dilemmas they face. They try to do what’s ‘right for the business’ and ‘create shareholder value,’ but the view they take has a short-term horizon and solely a profit motive. Conversely, a values-driven leader seeks to reach beyond simply making money to attain long-lasting, enduring value for her employees, her customers, her community, and society.

To get centered on what you believe and what you value, ask yourself these questions: What are your personal truths? Can you articulate your stance on ethics and morals? When are you at risk of crossing over your moral and ethical lines in daily choices? How does this leave you unsteady and ill-prepared for the bigger leadership decisions you need to make? Do your values align with your company’s corporate values. Are your company’s values worth aligning with?

Photo of Weird Al Yankovic winning a Grammy Award

What can a 5-time Grammy award winner (and 16-time nominee) with over 13 million albums sold, teach us about values and soulful leadership? Alfred Matthew Yankovic, known to the world as “Weird Al” went from a nerdy, socially isolated, accordion-playing teenager to one of the most recognized names in the entertainment industry. Behind the wacky onstage persona and lyrical genius of his song parodies is a person with deeply held values, who leads in a way that is uniquely his own.

I remember watching an interview of Weird Al many years ago where he talked about being offered a million-dollar contract to do a t.v. ad campaign for a nationally-recognized beer company. Certainly, a massive sum for any performing artist, especially one earlier on in his career as Weird Al was at that time. Yet, he declined the offer. As an emerging star he knew that whatever he chose to shine his light on would be seen by his devoted, multi-generational fan base, which included young children. That strong value system can also be seen in his commitment to avoid mentioning illicit drugs, sex and using profanities in his song lyrics.

In a recent interview with Frank Buckley (start at 14:40), Weird Al shares his principled approach to making parodies of other artists’ songs – he always gets their permission – and how he made a choice to lead after finding out about the tragically sudden death of his parents while he was on tour (start at 16:12). “I had a band and crew that had made plans for that summer. Everybody who had bought a ticket to the show had made plans to be there at the show. I thought…I have to fulfill my obligation. I have to do what’s right and respect all these other people.”

If you spend any time learning about this incredible artist you will see the consistent evidence of his values fully expressed in his life’s work. Being clear-eyed on these aspects of your personal constitution translates directly into how you lead. Yes, this absolutely matters in business.

Decide what it is you stand for

Taking a stand on a position or issues could be unpopular and involve some personal risk to you. The age of keyboard courage and paper-thin self-righteousness presents you with a moment to sift your heart-of-hearts to find those things on which you personally – Will. Not. Compromise. “You have enemies?” Winston Churchill once asked. “Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

In the spring of 2019, shortly after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people, Ed Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, announced that Dick’s would stop selling assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as require gun buyers to be at least 21 years of age. “These policies would cost Dick’s some $250 million in sales,” he told Inc.com. He further elaborated in another interview with the New York Times that, “If you have ideas about how to solve certain problems, I think it’s your responsibility as business leaders to speak up.”

Regardless of your own personal opinion on gun control, what I illuminate here is Stack’s lonely act of courage – he took a risk to take a stand for something he believed in, based on deeply held values that fully align with who he sees himself to be as a person and leader. To not take this position would have been a huge compromise of who he was, so despite the inevitable backlash he knew he would receive, he remained firm in his position anyway. This is soulful leadership.

Grow the soulfulness in the leaders you lead

One of the greatest mandates for leaders is to help others find their true essence as leaders, too. This means putting in the work to first make people feel profoundly understood and deeply valued for who they are. Sounds like a tall order? It is – but necessary if we want to move beyond quarterly goals, sales forecasts and productivity, and even, great work. Soulful leaders are comfortable in their own skin, but more so, they strive to help their people be comfortable in theirs. Think about what your people can achieve when you remove corporate posturing and the fear of looking stupid, and instead let them know that all that is needed is simply everything that they are. A team whose members can bring their full selves to work is all kinds of unstoppable.

I want to share one last story about a soulful leader you’ve also likely heard of. See if you can identify who this person is. For sake of ease and anonymity, I’m going to use ‘they.’ This leader has personally embodied the mantra ‘best places to work’ to create a climate that has energized their people in a truly infectious way. This leader has taken moments to consciously share their values with team members in service of encouraging those individuals to identify and express their most deeply held values. The team has seen their leader be absolutely fearless in fighting for their best interests within the organization, so that the team has the resources, opportunities and support needed to flourish. This leader appreciates every team member, encourages them towards their ‘highest and best use,’ and constantly thinks about how to grow their people to make evermore valuable contributions in the broader organization.

At the end of each day this leader thinks to themselves, “I made a difference today by helping somebody else navigate their journey, and by doing so, moved a little further along on my own.”

Have you figured out who this person is? That leader, as it turns out, is you.

So, what has the sun, the wind, the rain and the snow taught you about the soul of your leadership? In what ways are you developing understanding of the human condition and acceptance of those around you? After all, they, like you, are trying to do their best to make it in this world. And most importantly, have you fully accepted yourself? For all that you are, and the things that you’re not. For how you want to make an impact and touch lives in a way so others can see their own brilliance…or a bit more of that beautiful patina. When you can do that, you move into a richer and deeper version of yourself, leadership that is distinctly and undeniably ‘You.’

And yes, more soulful.

Wayland K. Lum is the Founder and Managing Director of Copperbox, an Austin-based leadership advisory and development firm focused on accelerating leadership wisdom. You can learn about Wayland’s work with leaders at www.copperbox.co, and connect with him at wayland@copperbox.co.

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