When I was a kid, my Father who had a 50 plus year career in the field of leadership development, often described how he helped executives create something called a ‘life purpose statement.’
The format was straightforward. He would meet with the executive several times to discuss what they might include in their statement. In between these meetings the executive would complete several rounds of homework, iterating and reiterating many written drafts. The statements were as short as a sentence, and as long as a paragraph. My Father used some basic handouts to guide the process, but nothing complex or technical.
After an executive finished their statement, my Father would print it in hard copy, set it in an elegant frame, then present it to the executive, who often hung it in a prominent place in their office.
Far from being inspired, I thought the whole process sounded crazy. The notion that people paid my Father to facilitate this process for them was hard to fathom, and perhaps even horrified me. What was the value? Could this practice possibly make these executives better leaders?
Then a few years later, after I started working with my Father in his leadership development consulting practice, I met a CEO who was absolutely convinced of the value of creating a life purpose statement. He wrote one under the guidance of my Dad, and found it to be so valuable that he asked many of his company’s top executives to undertake the exercise as well.
One time, the CEO shared why he felt so strongly that the other members of his executive team should undertake this process. He said “when one of those executives is far away from home, all alone in a hotel room late at night, separated from their families and loved ones, and stressed from working to their limit, I want them to read their statement to help remember why they’re doing what they’re doing.” My interpretation of this testimonial was that he wanted his team to use their statements to cope or fashion positive, growth-oriented meaning out of their suffering and discomfort. Perhaps such a statement could remind those leaders who they were, who they wanted to become, and what was most important to them.
I put this interesting case study in my pocket and continued hurtling through my career as a leadership development practitioner with hair-on-fire speed (typical of the profession), not thinking much about it at the time. One reason I set the CEO’s story aside was that all the leadership programs I facilitated at the time took a different yet quite common approach to inducing growth - goal setting.
We asked leaders to set goals, goals, and more goals. There were bold goals and incremental goals. There were complex goals, and simple goals. There were broadly defined ‘headline’ goals, and narrowly defined action-oriented goals. There were goals linked to the leader’s feedback report, and goals leaders set based on their personal preference. There were long term goals, and short term goals. There too many goals (at times) and too few goals (at times). There were achievable goals, and unachievable goals. In short, the process was very goal heavy.
This made sense, after all, the power of goal setting on motivation and behaviour is one of the crown jewels of all psychological research over the last 40 years. The findings are robust, and the impact unequivocal: forged in the right way, goals increase motivation and performance.
And yet, while immersed in this goal focused paradigm of development, in quiet moments I thought back to that CEO, and his compelling assertion about how his life purpose statement influenced him. With a sense of curiosity, from time to time I asked leaders I was working with if they wanted to write a statement defining the leader they would like to be. I got few takers. The odd person took up the challenge and found it beneficial, but it was clear this path required considerable effort and introspection.
More recently however, a client of mine took up the challenge of writing down his idealized vision for his leadership style, and his experience reinforced for me the power of this approach and it’s complementarity to a goal-focused process.
Therefore in this article, I’d like to differentiate two different leadership development paradigms: one involves goal-setting, as I’ve mentioned; the second I’ll call a ‘way of being’ approach. In particular, I’ll suggest how a ‘way of being’ approach to leadership development holds several advantages over a goal-focused approach, when it comes to supporting leadership development for executives.
Two paradigms of leadership development: goal focused vs a 'way of being'
A goal-focused approach to leadership development often involves a leader first receiving feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, usually in the form of 360 survey results and personality inventory data. Then, in most cases with the support of a coach/consultant, the leader drafts a set of development focused goals and corresponding actions, which they finalize based on input from their supervisor. This final document, called a development plan, often includes two to three broadly-worded ‘headline’ goals, with several specific action-oriented goals nested under each. Leaders might also capture timelines and possible support resources in the plan. Once the plan is set, the leader and the coach/consultant meet regularly to facilitate making as much progress against it as possible. The plan is also often shared with other stakeholders, in part to solicit their support towards achieving the objectives. Finally, the overall success of the program is often judged by the number of goals the leader achieves.
A ‘way of being’ approach to leadership development is quite different. It involves the leader crafting a short statement that defines the way they want to be in the world, as a leader.
How do you want to act? How do you want to interact with others? What values do you want to express, and most importantly, how do you want to express them?
Yet another way leaders can think about how to be in the world is explore the way they want to experience leadership.
How do you want to experience being a leader? What do you want to feel, think, sense?
You could think about this as a purpose, mission, vision, or philosophy as it relates to leadership. The labels matter less to me than the content. The core idea is that leaders create a short statement about how they want to be in the world, as a leader, and then use that to focus their attention and efforts on realizing that ideal.
Is the ‘way of being’ statement just a goal? I suppose you could think of it like that, but it’s different in that it doesn’t fit the mold of being specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bounded (all qualities we think of as essential when goal setting).
Regardless of whether you classify the 'way of being' statement as a goal, it’s a very different (and perhaps at times more powerful) motivational tool, and one that could be leveraged for greater benefit in many leadership development programs.
What are the advantages of a ‘way of being’ approach to leadership development?
While goal setting is integral in driving motivation and behaviour change in leadership development programs, a ‘way of being’ approach offers many unique advantages compared to traditional goal-based processes. The following are several advantages of using a ‘way of being’ statement to guide leadership development.
- It helps leaders focus on development in a wide variety of situations: Goals are often tied to specific situations and contexts (in fact we’re taught to define our goals in as specific terms as possible). A ‘way of being’ statement however isn’t tied to a particular context, rather it’s relevant to every meeting, interaction, and moment of a leader’s day. It generalizes across situations, and helps leaders apply a development focus to the full spectrum of their experiences at work.
- It can be a source of significant energy because it taps into identity and deep values: A ‘way of being’ statement affirms a leader’s identity, and likely articulates their core values. As a result, striving to realize it may feel motivational and energetic, as if one is seeking to express their inner voice. By contrast, while some development goals might be tied to values, others might not boast that linkage and may be more pragmatic in nature.
- It encourages an inner-directed approach to development: Sometimes leaders set development goals based on what they think their supervisor wants them to do. Or sometimes they try to use goals to signal to supervisors that ‘I heard your feedback, I’m working on that skill.’ However, when you write a statement describing the way you want to ‘be’ as a leader, you may be less likely to infuse that statement with the perceived preferences of other stakeholders. It’s a very personal statement, and therefore may be more impervious to outside influence. (As a caveat, I do think it’s healthy and necessary for leaders to listen to others’ feedback, and to use it to shape their goals, but when it comes time to focus on development, I believe it’s important for clients to feel a strong personal connection to the goals they set.)
- It’s easy to remember, which increases its developmental value: In leadership development programs, leaders may set numerous goals and actions – say three goals with three actions each. That’s nine total focus areas to keep in mind. As a result, some of the development goals and actions might be easy to forget. By contrast, a statement about a ‘way of being’ is short and simple to remember. This increases its developmental value because leaders can remember and focus on it moment-to-moment, as they move with speed through their daily lives.
- It addresses the problem of goal overload: Executives and organizational leaders in general are overwhelmed with priorities, most of which have considerable stretch associated with them. At a given time they could be tracking over a hundred focus areas related to their work, all high stakes and tied to their compensation and formal performance appraisal. Adding a long list of development goals to their overall set of priorities might contribute to feelings of overload, and reduce their motivation to progress their development. By comparison, a ‘way of being’ approach defines just one ‘north star,’ which may feel manageable (not overwhelming) to work towards.
- Writing the statement is artistic and fun, not mechanistic: The process of writing goals in many areas of our lives, from formulating a shopping list for the grocery store, to sketching out our annual performance objectives, is often a rational, logical, even mechanical process. We write goals in structured lists. We order those lists hierarchically. We strive to accomplish those goals in an ordered, step by step, sequential manner, as if we’re ticking items off our to-do list. In contrast, developing a statement describing your ‘way of being’ in the world as a leader is a much more creative process. The writing process can be energizing, in part because there are no right or wrong answers. The statement is an expression of who you are, or who want to become. That’s fun and exciting. And working towards realizing your ‘way of being’ is not a matter of just ticking items off your to-do list, and relieving your task burden. It’s an endorsement of identity, current or idealized, which can be incredibly rewarding.
- It helps leaders focus on development over time (i.e., ‘you’re never done’): Because a statement about a ‘way of being’ is an expression of the leader you’re trying to become, you never fully achieve it, and can always strive for greater mastery. Therefore, the statement can have evergreen developmental value over long periods of time. Goals by contrast are often time bounded. Even if their time horizon is open-ended, they are often written in realistic terms, which suggests they can and should reach closure.
- It helps leaders master the duality of ‘core principles’ vs ‘flexibility’: A talented executive told me a year and a half ago that he thought one of the most significant challenges for leaders is to maintain a set of core principles they can adhere to and reference for guidance, and yet demonstrate flexibility when needed. Defining a ‘way of being’ is another way to articulate core principles. Once a leader defines these, they will know where they can flex and where they need to assert an uncompromising position.
- It’s a source of resilience: In moments of duress, when leaders seek wisdom and guidance, returning to a statement about a ‘way of being’ can provide a reservoir of strength. Referencing it can help make meaning out of discomfort, and reinterpret suffering as an affirmation of personal identity.
How do you write a statement defining your ‘way of being’ as a leader?
What I suggest is to engage in a practice called ‘free writing,’ a technique in which you sit down and capture your stream of consciousness about a topic. You don’t judge, evaluate, or even think too much about what you’re writing, you just write it out. (By the way, this technique is also used to overcome writer’s block.)
The question you can focus on for your free writing is ‘how do I want to be in the world as a leader?’
Another question you can consider writing about is ‘how do I want to experience leadership?’
If this approach feels weird or even distressing, set a timer to write for a fixed period of time – like 2, 5, or 10 minutes – whatever you want.
Once you’ve captured some free form ideas, step back and reflect on what themes jump out at you, and decide if or how you want to revise the statement further. You can also repeat the free writing process a second time, after considering your first pass.
Once you’ve crafted a statement you’re happy with, consider attaching it to the top of your development plan. This will ensure that you re-read the statement every time you review the plan, and it will also encourage reflection on the degree of alignment between the statement and your more specific goals.
My Father used to use a term he called ‘woo woo.’ He’d reference it anytime he talked about principles in psychology that seemed a little fringe. Group therapy practices in the 60’s in California? Woo woo. The Rorschach test, where you look at an inkblot and tell the psychologist what you see? Woo woo. The idea of getting in touch with your inner child? Super woo woo.
I always thought crafting a life purpose statement, or something similar like the ‘way of being’ format I’ve described here, was also woo woo. But as I’ve aged, and seen clients age with me, I now realize that maintaining a sense of our deep values, our identity, and a faint aspiration that we can still become something better or different, is one of the most powerful sources of motivation available to us. Goal setting will always be a cornerstone of leadership development, but I encourage you to consider writing a ‘way of being’ statement as a complement, and to use it as a source of energy and strength to grow as a leader.
Thank you for reading and I would welcome your feedback. If you would like to receive future original articles providing unique insights on leadership, please consider subscribing to my newsletter at www.timjacksonphd.com
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.