Leadership: Where Do You Locate Success?

As I wind down my time as the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting. The experience has been incredibly positive and successful, and all of that hinges on a particular philosophy: where do you locate success as a leader? Especially the origins of that success (which is not the same as an origin of an idea)?

I know for experienced leaders this question may be largely mundane. But, for a moment, imagine these two different mindsets:

Mindset #1: The success or goal you seek is located within yourself as the leader. Success entirely depends on how you deliver or explain the goal. How you treat the people involved (say, you want to push people to go beyond where they could have imagined) is the primary fuel for the engine that moves work forward. The group responds uniformly to your demeanor, and thus you must be firmly consistent in maintaining the posture or attitude required to reach “success.”

Mindset #2: The success of the goal you seek is largely located within the people you lead, many of whom may already be seasoned, self-motivated professionals. Simply having the goal (rather than its rhetorical presentation) is all the motivation that is required to reach new heights; it is fuel enough to power the engine because many of the contributors are creative and enjoy such challenges simply as a condition of who they are. The group does not respond uniformly to a single message or tone, therefore; as a leader you alter your approach depending on certain individuals or sub-groups based on what they respond to best. In varying your approach this way, you locate success in others (those you lead) and you work to best position them for that success by knowing who they are (rather than simply knowing who you are and what you want).

It is probably worth noting that mindset #2 includes a kernal of minset #1, simply through the existence of a leader and chain of command.

Needless to say, I find minset #2 not only the most productive, but also the best approach for relationship building, collaboration, and the open sharing of ideas. Why else would we desire a workplace with multi-faceted diversity? You rely on and trust in those you lead (who are likely also leaders in the organization), as they are surely a diverse group of people who respond to tasks or “orders” in different ways. You locate the successful outcome within them and, from that posture, do all you can to achieve and possibly surpass your goals.

Midset #1, in my view, is the ego-driven approach. Whether others can succeed–or be motivated to succeed–is entirely located in your own voice and messaging. Even if, in reality, someone is not only uninspired by how you are communicating, but also possibly confused or averse to it, you monolithically move forward.

Mindset #2 takes time, practice, missteps, patience, empathy, and most of all, belief in others. It is not a natural mindset, as the remedy for its drawbacks require a practiced and learned vigilance. That practice and experience is well worth it, especially when you look back over a period of work and accomplishment and your first thought is of others, not yourself. You lead with “we.”

I confess to not knowing if some people would call this “servant leadership,” or if mindset #2 is incompatabile with, say, intense military life. I have no doubt there are exceptions and I am curious to know what those are.

Still, if the expression “meet people where they are” is meaningful in any way, give me mindset #2 every time. In my experience, most people want to be seen, even if for a moment.

“The workplace of the future” rendered by Midjourney

2 thoughts on “Leadership: Where Do You Locate Success?

  1. Helpful, reflection-inducing post, Chuck. I am someone who recently retired from a bigger role that required the best version of myself every day to be effective. Leaders whose impacts are positive over time lead from that second mindset, I believe. They are mindful that their time here is short, that (for larger, older organizations anyway) they are stewards in their role for but a moment. I am mindful that it was not so long ago that the location I am sitting at in Green Bay right now was covered by 2-3 kilometers of glacier. All of our efforts matter a great deal in the moment. Those moments race by, and we make way for the next steward, having done our best to make the organization and people around us better for our having been there.

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