Choose Substance Over Form

When I knew that I would be moving on from my role of school Headmaster five years ago, I considered two primary pathways forward. One was another school leadership position. The other was to become a leadership coach and consultant. A variety of factors would point me in the latter direction, which I have been traveling on for the past five years. But this was only possible due to my willingness to open up to new possibilities and not allow myself to become stuck along the one path that I had come to know so well.

In their timeless presentation on the perils of leadership (Leadership on the Line, HBR Press, 2002, pp. 218ff,) authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky caution leaders to worry less about the form of their work and focus instead on the substance or essence of their contribution. We tend to come to think of ourselves by the form of what we do (“I am a mayor”, “I am a business executive”, “I am a professional athlete”, etc.) and struggle to make sense of things when our positions and status change, voluntarily or not. Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom with an empty nest, the non-profit leader who had not been renewed, the politician on the wrong side of an election, the retired technician or the laid-off laborer find themselves disoriented, with a reduced sense of purpose and unclear direction.

Without question, such periods can be very difficult and confusing, particularly when they occur suddenly and are imposed from without. But when a person chooses to identify first by who they are as people and what motivates them in the service of others, they can more easily and confidently move forward.

In my case, this meant focusing on my desire to coach clients to use their skills for the betterment of others around them. While my inner craving to teach and lead certainly could have found expression in a different school leadership position, I chose an alternative and exciting new path to bring these values to life, one that also offered me more freedom, control and the capacity to broaden my impact.

For others, their newfound focus on essence may take them in a completely different direction than in the past. Stories abound of people who left the corporate world and started new lives and businesses around their passions (such as healthy living, the great outdoors, podcasting, blogging and much more) and of retirees who chose to use their Golden Years to better the world through love and service. The key is to focus less on what you have been and more on what you want to become, give and share. There is never a shortage of ways in which to serve.

In addition to “substance” and “essence”, this concept of focusing inward to identify our deepest beliefs and passions is often referred to as “knowing you why”. Leadership expert Simon Sinek says that it’s not enough to know what you do and how you do it. At our essence, we are most motivated by knowing why we do things. And it’s through that awareness that we can best connect with and sell to others.

While the exercise of knowing one’s why can demand some real inner work, there are some shortcuts towards connecting more with one’s essence. Think about the causes and opportunities around you that speak to you. Perhaps you want to get more involved in a local non-profit or become a corporate trainer that can leverage past experiences in a way that helps people grow and develop. Maybe you have had this inner pull towards maintaining a garden and want to bring such awareness and opportunities to others. Whatever it is, think about how you can serve and start to take steps towards that end. It will be transformative.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to do this before things go sideways on you. No matter where you are in life or how secure your future feels, start to identify opportunities for service and self-fulfillment. They will bring you joy and purpose long before you think you need them and make your life and interactions that much more fulfilling.   

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.