Leadership is not something easily learnt by reading a book or attending a course. The courses can teach you the technical skills, but what makes a leader is about values more than skills. And values are best learnt from inspirational role models and people you aspire to be like.
The most inspirational leader I ever had the honor to learn from came from a very unlikely source and background.
Leadership teachings from a Buddhist Monk
Spending a year in Thailand, and interested in understanding the culture better, as well as researching ways to create happy workplaces, I once attended a talk by an American turned Tibetan Buddhist monk, who gave a short lecture on what he advises people to do each day to be happy.
As he sat in front of the crowd he was unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He radiated love, a sense of power and humility – all at the same time – and each time he spoke he demonstrated the true meaning of authenticity. Each time I listened to his words I thought the world would be a better place if more leaders were like him.
He gave up everything, including his home country, in search of happiness and meaning to life. Hearing him speak inspired me, as his journey sounded so similar to mine, also having given up everything and everyone I once valued, after coming to a point in my career where I wanted to find more meaning to my life than merely working for a salary each month keeping me from following the things I feel so passionate about. I understood how much courage it took on his part and what it takes each day to live by the choice he made, and I admired the way he expressed himself.
He humbly attempted to explain the wisdom behind eight short verses, and each time he translated the teachings as the only English speaking monk, he gave credit to his teachers, even though he was the one sitting in front of us giving the teaching.
He demonstrated to me the crucial element missing from so many leaders, and what it takes to be an inspiring leader. Each word, each action, each response from him were based on humility. But each time he reflected on the hardships of living as a monk, as opposed to feeling superior or lucky, I realised how magnetic and inspiring his vulnerability and humility was. He inspired me so much that nearly a year later I’m still holding on to the A4 handout with the verses he taught and regularly reflect on the contents. That, to me, is true leadership and true inspiration.
How do you choose an inspirational leader?
Management and leadership are, however, often seen by organizations as the ultimate reward for loyalty, hard work and having a dominant personality.
Sadly, most managers and leaders are often not chosen by the people they are to lead, but rather the managers who want their legacy to live on by selecting someone who best matches their management style and thinking.
A true leader, however, is not selected by the management team of an organization, it is someone who people look up to and aspire to be like. Whether they have the title to go with it or not, a true leader is the person selected and followed by the people. Someone who lives out the values of the company and inspires people to work towards a common goal that they believe in. Someone who is followed regardless of their role.
They are not necessarily the best skilled in a particular field, or the employee who’s been at the company the longest, or the one with the most academic achievements. Choosing a leader based on these criteria means that the company values loyalty, or technical skills, or academic knowledge. Choosing a leader however by asking the people who they consider worthy to lead them, means that you value the culture and the people, an undeniable ingredient for success.
Inherently they will choose someone they trust and respect, someone who has proven in the past that they have the best interest of the people and the company at heart. However, there is one other value that is critical for a leader to have.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. -C. S. Lewis
True leadership is about serving the people it is to lead and that requires humility. Looking at some of the most inspirational leaders of our time, each one has had to learn the lesson of humility at some time during their life. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa and barred from hotels because of his color. Martin Luther King Jr was whipped as a child, his house bombed and he was arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott.
They all have had to learn to put their egos aside and focus on a cause bigger than themselves. They all had to learn to serve the people with humility. They all realized that it’s not about them, but about the people they serve and the cause behind them.
So if you want to be an inspiring leader, the question to ask is not what you can do to have more power or authority, but how you can empower the people you lead to achieving more.
Each day, ask yourself this one question “How can I serve?”.
How can you serve the people who create the products and services you sell. How can you serve your customers better? How can you serve the investors, the suppliers, the partners?
When you lead from the outlook of viewing each person you interact with as more important than yourself, you empower them to do great things, while growing your own influence and power.
Being humble doesn’t mean that you are weak. It means that you realise how precious each resource in your organization and outside it is to the success of your existence.
Leading with humility means you value the people you interact with. And valuing the people you work with and for, means that they will do everything in their power to value you back.
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