My mantra: Create. Sweat. Give. Listen. Be kind.

I think of a mantra as something very personal, like the essence of a personal life philosophy. It was a little surprising when I honed mine at work writing for our e-newsletter to try and put a face on our mission. Finding the words to describe, briefly, who I really want to be has turned into my mantra, using a few words to remind me of my best self, making me a better person, and so, a better leader.

Here’s the article from 2013:

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Your Best Self…

After five decades of life (and then some), I still ask myself if I’m living day to day as my best self. An unabashedly honest answer would have to be probably not each and every day, but hopefully most days I’m at least thinking about it. I think it’s defined differently day to day, but for me, my best self includes being kind (harder than it sounds), finding creative purpose (so important for my personal overall happiness), listening without interrupting (sigh), giving back (getting outside of myself in big or little ways) and pushing my body to some new ability (if I can ride my bike faster, then my mind feels stronger too). Being able to pursue my best self is a gift. I have to remind myself of this sometimes. I have skills and abilities that allow me to do almost every single thing I want to do…or at least try!

People with disabilities or people who have experienced diminished skills and abilities due to aging aren’t always able to be their best self all by themselves. It’s the highest expression of our mission to help people be more than happy, healthy and safe; it is helping each person to be their best self. We may not achieve it every day, but when we see someone has the joy of a first paycheck, has learned to ride a bike, is going to the beach for the first time, and is growing in confidence and independence, we know we’re on the right track.

What will you do today to be your best self? Can you write down what “best self” means to you? What will you do today to help someone you care about be her or his best self? Can you write down what “best self” means to them? What might the world look like if we all expressed our best selves…and worked to support the best selves of those who can’t quite do it on their own?

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In terms of my personal mantra, “create”, “sweat” and even “give” have less to do with leadership than “listen” and “be kind”. “Create” attends to the artistic side of me and “sweat” to the athletic side. “Give” is about being mindful of those around me…I can get so lost in my own head. “Listen” and “be kind” have total life implications, but are heavy hitters for leadership. Lately I’ve been thinking about the “be kind” thing.

It all started with a conversation among several senior leaders debating if kindness is even a factor for good leadership.

What?

The thinking being if your skills are able to lead an organization to success, do you really have to be kind? There was clear consensus you shouldn’t be an ass, but do you really have to be kind?

Yes. Yes you do.

Part of me wants to say, “Hey, we really have to talk about being kind? Really?” The bigger part of me knows we do. There are many general reasons to be kind. Good karma. It’s how your parents taught you to act. It’s consistent across religious teachings. You get back what you give. People like kind people more than mean people. It’s not too difficult to be kind. I’m pretty sure there’s research out there to show kind people are healthier and report greater happiness.

Does all of this apply to leadership? Why be a kind leader? An obvious reason is you’re in charge of a business or an endeavor where the mission matters. If you want to be compelling to clients, vendors, and employees, kindness gives you a big advantage. The more compelling reason day to day in your place of work is people learn from you as their leader. Whether you like it or not or are aware of it all the time, you are a teacher by your very position as a leader. Intentional leaders embrace the opportunity and are deliberate teachers. They think about how to transfer skills. They model and they mentor. They communicate transparently and clearly. They problem solve objectively and negotiate solutions fairly.

The teaching thing is difficult. It requires thoughtfulness and energy. Honestly, it’s easier to lead instinctively and not think about the method of delivery or how you may be perceived. The problem is, like a sports star who says they didn’t sign up to be a kid’s mentor, they and you are just that by default. Sign up for it or not, it’s an immutable part of the job description. The way we lead teaches others what we believe about good leadership.

I can’t speak to all leaders, but if you’re a nonprofit leader (or aspire to be), you almost certainly have an interest in making the world a better place and leaving a legacy of good. Leaders add to their legacy by how they teach others along the way. You can improve the world by accomplishing mission driven goals without modeling kindness to those you lead, but your legacy will suffer for it.

Years ago I worked with a man who was a couple of tiers above me on the org chart. The best thing I learned from him was how to terminate a volatile employee. It’s an approach I’ve used throughout my career and I’m grateful to him for it. Unfortunately, his typical interaction with me and others was to make judgments about fault and yell at people without listening to what they had to say when he became unhappy about something.

He called me early one morning on my day off, hellbent about how I failed to get all the needed audit documents ready for him before I left the night before. Throughout the yelling, he never allowed an opportunity to explain how the one document he was looking for was not available to me or how I’d left specific instructions for two different day shift employees who did have access to deliver it to him first thing. Needless to say my day off was ruined. It was only later, when he apologized at the insistence of the CEO, I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Kindness matters. And again, it’s not too difficult. He could’ve stopped and thought for a minute and then called me and said “Hey, I know you’re off today and you were probably here late last night, but I have a question. I see most of what I need for the audit…thanks…but I don’t see document x and she’s waiting on it.” I would’ve said, “Oh no! I left big notes for Barb and John because their shifts start so early. They both have access to document x, but I didn’t so couldn’t get it for you. One or the other of them should’ve already brought it down. Do you want me to track them down and call you back?”

I steered clear of him as much as possible after that, which was unfortunate. I know I could’ve learned more specific skills from him than I did but his unpredictable temperament was a problem. I didn’t think of him as a leader I wanted to emulate.

I know other people in leadership positions who when irritated or stressed or unhappy can quickly revert to snarkiness. When they get called on it or even when they call themselves out, I’ve heard things like, “I know I’m not always the nicest, but I get things done”, “I don’t know why you heard what I said as unkind, I was only being honest”, “This is who I am, get over it”. Each of these responses is true. They aren’t the nicest, they were being honest, and yes, snarky is who they are sometimes.

We can all do better. The best leaders can use kindness as a way to teach, to model and mentor. Compelling leaders raise exceptional successors and leave enviable legacies. As a leader, are you becoming your best self? Do others want to learn from you? Can you write your personal mantra? Don’t forget “be kind”.

Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.
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Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.

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