Leadership in, or Rather on, a Cup

Sometimes you never know from whence wisdom will leap: I was reading the back of my cup of iced tea from Chipotle Grill and found this quote from Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute: “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re thinking too small.”

I recently spent a great four days in Atlanta working with my co-authors on a forthcoming book on meta-leadership.  We wrestled with many issues but one that I think we need to go back to is, “What is the purpose of leadership?” In short, why care? Why go to all of the work to develop the capability? Why buy our book? I got caught up in thinking back to Burns’ definition that leadership is the achievement of desired objectives — nice, but rather dry and academic (and a great over-simplification of Burns’ work). One my co-authors, Lenny Marcus, likes the simple “you’re a leader if you have followers” but that doesn’t speak to leadership.

But Wes’s words really hit me between the eyes — reminding me to think deeply about both about my own life’s work as well as the life’s work of the many (we hope) people who buy the book. It is too easy to assume that everyone knows why they want to be — or should be — a leader. Leadership is aspirational and a worthy calling but one can’t take its value for granted or wear it like a merit badge for basket weaving.

We started into a discussion on legacy though there was push-back that legacy is too airy-fairy. I think that’s wrong. I think that what may truly differentiate true leadership from other activities that seem to fall under that name is impact: Will the impact last after you are gone? Will you have had a deep enough impact on other people that they will change what they do and why they do it significantly enough that you can claim to have led that change? Will others take forward what you have done, shape it, and pass it on?

I think that this will be an ongoing discussion. What do you think?

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