Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Oprah Winfrey Fixes my Seven Year Itch

I still remember that conversation several years ago. It was an off-site meeting from work. Out of the blue, somewhere in the midst of it all, we were addressed as 'future leaders'. I did not see that coming. Questions swirled. Lots of them.

When did I suddenly become a leader? Why now? How? Was it because I was managing more people? What was that precise 'cut-off' when I ceased being a manager and transitioned into a leader? (Regular readers will easily discern my dilemma; after all, I have partially addressed it here, here, and here.)

But I had a more fundamental issue. For years, I had truly believed that entry level engineers at work or stay at home women running their household could be leaders in every sense of the word. So if 'years of experience' was irrelevant to leadership, what was?

Thus began a journey of seven years of discovery. (Note to newly-weds: The seven year itch is real. Just that it has nothing to do with marriage most of the time.)

I love commencement speeches. The speaker tries to pack years of experience into something that grads can relate to. Wisdom is dispensed in a manner that is not sanctimonious. And there is much to reflect on.

Oprah Winfrey's commencement speech at Harvard in May was one such gem.

The challenge of life, I have found, is to build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be, but it's a story about who you want to be. It's a resume that doesn't just tell a story about what you wanna accomplish, but why. A story that’s not just a collection of titles, and positions, but a story that’s really about your purpose. Because when you inevitably stumble and find yourself stuck in a hole, that is the story that will get you out. What is your true calling, what is your dharma, what is your true purpose?

Oprah was asking grads to discover why they exist (you will not get answers right away, she added, and boy, wasn't she right) as the first step. I recalled a saying that I read elsewhere that seemed to be the perfect next step. The longest distance that you will ever take in life - it goes - is the eighteen inches between your heart and your head. Aligning what we do (action) with what we want (passion) is that second step.

Which brings me back to Leadership. The best definition about Leadership that I have read in these seven years has been from the book What You're Really Meant to Do. Robert Kaplan defines leadership as the ability to figure out what you believe and then summon the courage to appropriately act on those beliefs. These actions must be geared towards adding value to an enterprise and making a positive impact on others. No mention of titles, empires, budgets or power.

And therein lay the answers to my long quest in simple terms. When you discover your calling, undertake that 18 inch journey, and repeatedly demonstrate the courage to live your beliefs, you become a Leader.

No one said this would be easy. But it holds good for entry level engineers. For stay at home ladies. And for people that carry seven year itches.


Jaideep Rao said...

How apt! Kaplans' definition of leadership..Well written

Arun Kumar said...

Thanks Jaideep. It is an apt definition that all can relate to