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A Leadership Exercise

Jim Mahoney for blog

In the past few years, I’ve begun asking workshop participants to consider sharing a three-word evaluation for themselves in their work. Part of it is the mystique and power in using three. Look around and you will see three on medical centers, colleges, businesses and even pizza trucks. The latter was a food truck I saw that had three large words emblazoned on the side: ORDER. PAY. LEAVE. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a popular book turned into a movie a few years back entitled, Eat. Pray. Love. You get the idea. Three verbs can be concise, memorable and promote action.

The first time I used this approach was with teachers who offered verbs when I asked them how they might want to be evaluated. The first said: PREPARE. OBSERVE. LEARN. Another offered: ENCOURAGE. SUPPORT. MOTIVATE. Each teacher explained why they picked those verbs and the kind of evidence they would share with their evaluator to prove they had in fact carried out their beliefs. After all, I always loved this mantra: “Don’t tell me what you believe but show me what you do, and I’ll tell you what you believe.” Authentic leadership comes from knowing what you believe, why you believe those principles, and aligning your actions to support those beliefs.

The exercise helps clarify your approach to working with others, reflect on your actions, and whether or not these actions are getting you the results you want for your organization. What is always clear to me when I ask people to select three verbs is the fact that how they see their job is how they do their job. Recently, I asked graduate students in a nonprofit leadership class I teach to write a leadership profile. The purpose of the exercise is to enable them to think about their strengths, influences on how they would lead, and how they see their role as a leader. Some of their responses inspired me. While they aren’t captured in three words, these student phrases suggest how they see leadership and might well perform it. Consider these:

“...do everything you can to grow yourself and create the right environment for others to grow.”

“There is a beautiful Japanese technique called Kintsugi which is the process of mending broken pottery with gold lacquer rather than throwing it out, making it more beautiful than before. This act of restoration always spoke to be part of my soul.”

“...being a leader isn’t about your pay grade but about the skills you can bring to the table to encourage others to be an integral part of the team.”

“I asked myself, what can I do to better myself while searching for justice and community belonging?”

“I have 25 plants in my tiny apartment that all have different needs to grow; some need more light, some need more water, some like dry and others humid conditions, some need to be pruned and some like to be left alone. To help them all...it has taken some trial, lots of error, and research to help them grow.”

Finally, this student offers from his international travels another insight on leadership, “misery can accompany places of ...opulence, and ...joy can be found even within the oppression of impoverishment.”

I feel good about future leaders when I read these selected comments. Leaders everywhere can improve their practice by asking themselves again, “how do see my role as a leader?” Because seeing it first most often determines how you do it.