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Great Leadership Doesn't Require Sacrifice

At GlenHaven International we simply don’t believe great leadership requires sacrifice. The notion that leading is a burden or must somehow cause harm to the person who leads makes no sense. And evaluating the effectiveness of a leader by the degree of burden felt or sacrifice made is also wide of the mark for one simple reason: Leadership isn’t about the leader; leading is about those being lead. And sacrifice by a leader simply does not correlate to follower performance.

Most often, the feedback we hear is some form of objection to the notion that leading should feel good. Many seem to think if a leader likes leading it’s because her ego is being fed, so her happiness is taken at the expense of those who follow. In addition, many seem to think the only way for a leader to avoid arrogance is to demonstrate a lack of ego by public sacrifice. This thought process seems to propose leaders must either chose sacrifice or be doomed to arrogance. We disagree.

We are firmly convinced great leadership cannot exist if there is either sacrifice or arrogance. Sacrifice drains the leader, and arrogance drains the followers. Neither is effective, both are unsustainable, and both fail as leadership paradigms. Great leadership requires something different; it requires job satisfaction. The term we use is fulfillment.

Fulfillment must not be confused with ego. Feeling good about being a great leader is job satisfaction, not arrogance. The only way a person can lead and lead well over long periods of time is if the things the leader does to lead also nurture a sense of visceral fulfillment in the leader. This isn't ego and it’s not arrogance. It’s simple job satisfaction.

Ego and fulfillment are not only different emotions, they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re completely unrelated to each other. They’re different states of being. It’s the difference between feeding the ego, which can never be satisfied and is a constant drain, and the fulfillment created by a job well done which generates energy and is durable. Understanding this also leaves sacrifice revealed as a mere self-inflicted wound with the vague presumption that “harm to me is good for thee”.

The key is to align high performance leadership behaviors with visceral fulfillment of the leader. An easy example is a coach on the sideline of the Saturday afternoon soccer game. When a kid scores a goal, the kid celebrates the goal. The coach celebrates, not the goal, but having put the kid in the game.

Great leadership, like the Saturday soccer coach, is about finding fulfillment in setting others up to succeed. To get away from “toxic” leadership, leaders must find fulfillment, not sacrifice, in actions which set the team up to succeed.

Many leadership instructors, particularly ones who come from the military, have a story about inspecting feet. As anyone who has been in the outdoors will tell you, nothing creates bigger problems than neophytes who haven’t learned to care for their feet and end up unable to walk because of blisters. And everyone’s story talks about examining feet and ordering clean socks and first aid. But the problem with most of these “blister stories” is that they usually talk about how horrible it is to examine stinky feet and how important it is for the leader “sacrifice” and to show everyone a “servant’s” attitude by inspecting and caring for feet.

My blister story is different and has a different message. I was 22 years old and was spending the summer leading five-day hikes in the Olympic mountains in Washington State. I was out on the trails each Monday and back in on Friday. I had the weekend to clean gear before going back out again on Monday with a new group; for six straight weeks. On the fourth hike of the summer, we stopped late on the afternoon of the third day to make camp and everyone took off their boots to examine their feet. One young man had a problem. He had a blister which covered the entire ball of his foot. He was 14, had about a size 9 foot and this blister was 3 inches wide, 2 inches long and covered the walking surface of his foot.

According to the manual, the course of action was to carefully drain the blister, bandage it and let it heal over several days. I knew if we drained the blister, he’d have a raw open wound covering the entire ball of his foot and he wouldn’t be able to walk at all for several days. As I came over to have a closer look, he and his two buddies opened up their first aid kits and were preparing to drain the blister, so I intervened. I didn’t yell, I didn’t order, I didn’t panic, and I didn’t sacrifice. I asked if they’d mind waiting a bit and having a chat first before they went on with the procedure. As we talked about likely outcomes if they drained the blister and I asked about their experience with discomfort when they had drained smaller blisters on previous occasions, I noticed the rest of the group was listening, so I brought the entire crew in for a problem-solving session. In the end the kid with the blister agreed the best course of action was a “wait and see” approach. We had two days of hiking left and 12 miles to get through, and he could walk fine with the blister intact, so he stayed off his feet and did the small tasks possible without moving around while the rest of us set up camp. And over the next two days, we all stayed aware of the situation, assisted as needed, and he walked out without too much problem.

And when he stepped into the van at the trailhead my principal emotion was not relief, it was pride. I was overwhelmed that I had the first aid skill, the presence of mind, and the ability to communicate which got this kid through two days of hiking over 12 miles of rugged terrain without a problem. I was incredibly proud of taking a situation which could easily have devolved into a scared 14-year-old, in pain and unable to walk, stranded miles away from assistance, and turning it into a learning experience and a non-event. My responsibility as a leader was not a burden, because my performance as a leader fed my sense of self-worth. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I can now. I had visceral fulfillment. Taking care of this kid was not a sacrifice. Facing this challenge was not an obstacle. It was a situation which called on the best part of me, it allowed me to lead, and it revealed my character. And it didn’t matter that nobody noticed. It mattered to me. Fulfillment, not ego.

Now, some might read this and see a classic example of what is called “servant” leadership or even see some sort of sacrifice in what I did to handle the problem. But that’s not what I felt. I felt pride in having done a good job getting that kid out of the woods without further pain or injury. I felt the visceral satisfaction of high-performance leadership and it gave me the energy I needed to take the next group out on the trail the next Monday. Checking stinky feet can be seen as a burden, but when aligned properly, it generates visceral fulfillment in a leader. And it creates energy rather than draining it. It allows the leader to continue leading because when properly aligned, leadership behaviors create fulfillment.

We believe it’s a fundamental mistake to see leadership in terms of service. Leading is a role which, when done well, has the very same rewards as any other role in an organization. And while it’s true the responsibility and authority of leadership positions creates differences in status, the solution is not to try to flatten status. The solution is to set everyone up to succeed, each in their own role. Leaders should not seek to serve individual contributors, nor should leaders seek to be served. Service is due the customer and only the customer. Everyone, leaders and followers alike, have roles to play and they all contribute meaningfully to serving the customer. To succeed, everyone must focus on producing a successful outcome. If the team focuses on the outcome, there's simply no need for a competition about who is the better servant to everyone else inside the team.

So, what’s next? Does servitude, obligation, or duty still seem like solid foundations for durable leadership? Or does fulfillment warrant a deeper examination? Would you like to learn more?

The First Promotion Transition Certificate Course teaches leadership founded on visceral fulfillment. It’s a ten-week self-paced certificate course. Ten lessons supported by ten implementation exercises, so you own the concepts. And it’s right here.

Leadership is a life-long learning process and success depends on a good start. Start with First Promotion Transition. No matter what leadership training program you’re taking, even if you’ve already started, you’ll do better if you #DoThisFirst.

Don’t get left behind. Even if you have a blister.

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