4 Questions Every Leader Needs to Answer

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If you want to go deeper and further in your leadership experience, here are four questions you need to answer:

1.  Why do I want to lead?

Aspiring leaders–students and ambitious employees–call me regularly to ask me for advice on how to lead. Before I answer, I ask them: why do you want to lead?

The “why?” should always precede the “what?” and “how to.”

If you don’t have a compelling reason to lead, others probably won’t have a compelling reason to follow.

There are many reasons to pursue leadership. Unfortunately, wanting to be a leader isn’t enough. Leading–doing the work of leadership–is much harder than having the title of “leader.” You can be elected the president of a club but if it rarely meets and you invest little effort, you aren’t really leading.  True leadership isn’t about status, but results; it isn’t what you’re called, but what you do.

A clear leadership purpose creates three payoffs:

1. It motivates. A higher purpose is the fuel for your leadership efforts. Goals alone don’t motivate you; purpose propels.

2. It focuses. You have a sense of priorities, avoid distractions and don’t waste time on those things that don’t serve that greater purpose.

3. It provides resilience. Purpose creates staying power when you meet resistance. Lacking a compelling purpose, many fold when they encounter difficulties and setbacks. Purpose creates leaders that last.

2.  What kind of leader do I want to be?

I believe the principals of good leadership never change, but they can and are applied uniquely by different leaders. Substance is a given for effective leadership but style is a personal choice. Have you given any thought to the kind of leader you want to be?

Authenticity is about being who you appear to be. It is congruency between public presentation and perception and personal beliefs and behaviors.

Steve Jobs was famous for his intense focus on product. When you think of Mother Theresa, you think of her love for people. The founders of Hewlett Packard created an amazing process and it became known as the HP Way. And when it comes to profit, there are many contemporary leaders to choose from. It wasn’t that any of these examples focused exclusively on these areas (with the arguable exception of Jobs), but that while all were leaders of great substance, their style and legacy were a result of the kind of leader they chose to be.

What unites all these different types of leaders? Their ability to create results. Style never replaces substance, but it has the power to leverage or diminish it.

Choose carefully what kind of leader you desire to be and craft it carefully.

3.  Who will I follow?

Leader are rarely developed in isolation. We all emulate to learn. If we emulate effective leaders, we become effective leaders. Emulate the wrong kind of leaders, and we imprint negative behaviors.

You can learn from a bad leader (what not to do), but emulation is about acting like or performing as the leader you follow.

Choosing who you follow determines both how effectively you use your time and talent to contribute and the lessons that you learn. (And it is very difficult to learn the real lessons of leadership outside of a living example.)

An expert in spotting counterfeit money was once asked by a journalist how difficult it was to study all the different types of counterfeit currency in the world. He responded, “I don’t study the counterfeit. I study the authentic and that makes any counterfeits easy to spot.” While there are some lessons to be learned from bad leadership, we have more to gain by studying the authentic.

4.  How will I continue to improve?

Sad is the day when any of us think we are as good as we will ever be. Ultimately no one can force you to keep improving, but it is one of the great opportunities and challenges of life and leadership.

The better you become, the harder it is to get better. Improvements in your thinking and skills going from being big jumps in your early years to tiny increments the longer you lead.

Before identifying how you’ll get better, it is important to deal with your motivations. The intrinsic reasons include a commitment to being the best you can be, the excitement of new challenges and a desire to make a bigger positive impact.

Extrinsic motivations include things like competition within your organization for advancement and competition from other firms who desire your customers and marketshare.

I could build a very solid case for the importance of your ongoing improvement, but it is more effective to let you build your own. You will improve in proportion to your reasons and motivations. If you don’t truly desire to improve, you won’t. Important growth doesn’t happen by accident.

Growth in your leadership abilities requires at least three things: 1. study, 2. example and/or mentors and 3. experience. You can’t think your way to leadership skills without leading something any more than you can think your way to riding a bike without ever getting on the bike.

The best leaders continue to get better.

You’ll never be the best you’ll ever be. You can only be the best you are right now.

Award winning Matthew McConaughey offered a unique perspective at the 2014 Oscars. Here’s what he said in his acceptance speech for best actor:

Here is an excerpt from Matthew McConaughey’s acceptance speech for best:

“… when I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say “who’s your hero?” And I said, “I don’t know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.” I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says “who’s your hero?” I said, “I thought about it. You know who it is? It’s me in 10 years.” So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “So, are you a hero?” And I was like, “not even close. No, no, no.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because my hero’s me at 35.” So you see every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero’s always 10 years away. I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”

Leadership impact, effectiveness and success are a moving target that only committed and thoughtful leaders can consistently hit. Investing the effort to truthfully answer the four questions above will give you the information and inspiration you need to be counted among the best and continue to get better.

Mark Sanborn HeadshotMark Sanborn, an international bestselling author and noted authority on leadership, service and extraordinary performance.  His bestselling book The Fred Factor which sold more than 2 million copies.  Mark is an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis. He is featured by Crestcom in DVD based training taught in 90 counties. His list of 2400 clients include Harley Davidson, Costco, Cisco, ESPN, First Data and In & Out Burger.  You can connect with Mark @ MarkSanborn.com