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Leadership is a choice, not a position: Stepen R Covey

Stephen R Covey  |  Indian Management 

Using the 8th Habit as a guide for leadership in turbulent times.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented economic slowdown. The uncertainty that comes with such an economic environment is compounded with accelerated and profound changes in today’s business world — technological, cultural, social, economic and personal. The net effect is increasing anxiety, insecurity, and more pressure than ever before on today’s employees, managers, leaders and organisations.

In this article, I would like to discuss with you some of the principles that I believe can help individuals, at any level of the organisation, inculcate and express leadership qualities that enable them to be an inspiration to all around, contributing to positive growth for the company. Great leaders, formal and informal, know what to do in turbulent times. They manage change, communicate a vision and serve in the role of a coach and supporter for those around.

I have worked with organisations around the world for over 40 years and have been a student of the great minds who have studied organisations. In times of economic uncertainty, organisations often need to make cultural shifts. Most of the great cultural shifts — the ones that have built great organisations that sustain long-term growth, prosperity and contribution to the world — started with the choice of one person. Sometimes that one person was the formal leader — the CEO or president. Very often it started with someone else — a professional, a line manager, someone’s assistant. Regardless of their position, these people first changed themselves from the inside out. Their character, competence, initiative and positive energy — in short, their moral authority — inspired and lifted others. They possessed an anchored sense of identity, discovered their strengths and talents, and used them to meet needs and produce results. People noticed. They were given more responsibility. They magnified the new responsibility and again produced results. More and more people sat up and noticed. Top people wanted to learn of their ideas — how they accomplished so much. The culture was drawn to their vision and to them.

People like this just do not get sucked into or pulled down for long by all the negative, demoralising, insulting forces in the organisation. And interestingly, their organisations are no better than most organisations. To some degree, they are all a mess. These people just realise that they cannot wait for their boss or the organisation to change. They become an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. And it is contagious.

Where does a person get such internal strength to swim against the current and to withstand negative cultural provocations, subordinate selfish interests and develop and sustain such vision and determination?

They learn of their true nature and gifts. They use them to develop a vision of great things they want to accomplish. With wisdom they take initiative and cultivate great understanding of the needs and opportunities around them. They meet those needs that match their unique talents, tap their higher motivations, and make a difference. In short they find and use their voice. They serve and inspire others. They apply PRINCIPLES that govern growth and prosperity in human beings AND in organisations — principles that draw the highest and best from a “whole person” — body, mind, heart and spirit. Equally significant, they also choose to influence and inspire others to find their voice through these principles.

This is a bold statement born of my deep conviction: leadership is a choice, not a position. Understanding this fundamental precept of leadership is critical because it is the key to success in any undertaking of life. When you’ve got good leadership, families, businesses, schools, hospitals, communities, and governments thrive. Under poor or mediocre leadership, none of these enterprises fulfill their potential. Leadership, therefore, is everybody’s business. It is the business of choice, of making things happen, and of making a difference.

The premise of this article is that human beings have the intrinsic power and freedom to make choices. Next to life itself, the power to make choices is our most precious gift. Perceiving yourself as a victim, without choice, is the greatest inhibiting factor to achieving what matters most to you. We all have the power to make choices in our personal lives as well as within the workforce.

We routinely call people in with titles our leaders. We rate the performances of people in authority and call them good or bad leaders. It is easy and convenient to explain situations — and thus to assign blame when things do not work out — as a function of other people’s actions and choices. By thinking this way, however, we empower formal managers’ weaknesses and thereby disempower ourselves. Only when we truly understand and accept the concept of leadership as a choice, are we able to replace the notion of leadership as a position with leadership as influence. And then we can even become the leaders of the people we report to at the workplace.

To help you increase your power and capacity to lead, to help you choose to exert influence, regardless of your position, whether you are a factory worker, a CEO, a middle manager, a janitor, an entrepreneur, or a single parent, I urge you to consider leadership as a choice, not a position.

In order to accomplish this goal, I offer you a two-part framework of thinking drawn from my book, The 8th Habit, which will help you tackle your greatest personal and organisational challenges.

The solution
The two-part framework I suggest is as follows: 1) Find your voice 2) Inspire others to find theirs

This is a road map for individuals at ANY level of an organisation to maximise their fulfilment and influence, become an irreplaceable contributor, and inspire their team and the broader organisation to do the same. It is a roadmap to move from pain and frustration to true fulfilment, relevance, significance and contribution in today’s new landscape — not only in your work and organisation, but in your whole life. It will help you to find your own voice, and also expand your influence, regardless of your position, to inspire others you care about — your team and your organisation — to find their voices and increase manifold their effectiveness, growth and impact.

Find your voice
Everyone chooses one of two roads in life — the old and the young, the rich and the poor, men and women alike. One is the broad, well-traveled road to mediocrity, the other the road to greatness and meaning. The range of possibilities that exists within each of these two destinations is as wide as the diversity of gifts and personalities in the human family. But the contrast between the two destinations is as the night is to the day.

The path to mediocrity straitjackets human potential. The path to greatness unleashes and realises human potential. The path to mediocrity is the quick-fix, short-cut approach to life. The path to greatness is a process of sequential growth from the inside out. Travelers on the lower path to mediocrity live out the cultural “software” of ego, indulgence, scarcity, comparison, competitiveness, and victimism. Travelers on the upper path to greatness rise above negative cultural influences and choose to become the creative force of their lives. One word expresses the pathway to greatness: Voice. Those on this path find their voice and inspire others to find theirs. The rest never do. Once you make the choice to follow this “road less traveled,” the first step on the pathway is to:

Discover your voice: You discover your own voice by coming to understand your true nature. Every one of us is born with magnificent “birth gifts”— talents, capacities, privileges, intelligences and opportunities with infinite potential. Of these the three most important birth-gifts are those of choice, principles, and the four human intelligences (physical/economic, emotional/social, mental and spiritual) that correspond to the four parts of our human nature. In my seminars, I urge people to see that they are ultimately free to make choices. When you understand this, you can see how your choices literally create the world in which you live by directly impacting the events that unfold as a result of your choices. By exercising your freedom to choose, you can change your life for the better, especially if you make “wise use” of your freedom to choose, by living by principles and by developing and using with integrity the intelligence tied to each of the four parts of your nature — mental, spiritual, social and physical. Developing and using these intelligences will instill in you quiet confidence, internal strength and security. Your efforts to develop these intelligences will profoundly impact your ability to influence others and inspire them to find their voice.

Express your voice: You express your voice by cultivating the highest manifestations of these human intelligences—vision, discipline, passion and conscience. Vision is seeing with the mind’s eye what is possible in people, in projects, in causes and in enterprises. Vision results when our mind joins with possibility. Discipline arises when vision joins with commitment, while passion is the fire, the desire, the strength of conviction and the drive that sustains the discipline to achieve the vision. Conscience is the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong, the drive to meaning and contribution. These four words essentially embody many of the other characteristics used to describe those people whose influence is great. Great leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela all embodied these human intelligences in the work they did, driven by conscience, with passion, vision and discipline.

Inspire others to find their voice

Once you have found your own voice, the choice to expand your influence, to increase your contribution, is the choice you make to inspire others to find their voice. Inspire (from the Latin inspirare) means to breathe life into another. As we recognise, respect, and create ways for others to give voice to all four parts of their nature—physically, mentally, emotionally/socially and spiritually — latent human genius, creativity, passion, talent and motivation is unleashed. It will be those organisations that reach a critical mass of people and teams expressing their full voice that will achieve the next-level breakthrough in productivity, innovation and leadership in the marketplace and society.

Simply put — at its most elemental and practical level — leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. Think about this definition. Is this not the essence of the kind of leadership that influences and truly endures? To communicate the worth and potential of others so clearly, so powerfully and consistently, that they really come to see it in themselves is to set in motion the process of seeing, doing and becoming.

By inspiring others to find their voice, we enter into the domain of leadership. Again, this is not leadership as a formal position, but leadership as a choice to deal with people in a way that will communicate to them their worth and potential so clearly they will come to see it in themselves. Regarding our focus on this kind of leadership in the organisation, I would like to emphasise four simple points:

At the most elemental level, an organisation is nothing more or less than a relationship with a purpose (its voice). That purpose is aimed at meeting the needs of one or more persons or stakeholders. The simplest organisation would be two people who share a purpose, such as in a simple business partnership or a marriage.

Almost all people belong to an organisation of one kind or another. Most of the world’s work is done in and through organisations. The highest challenge inside organisations, including families, is to set them up and run them in a way that enables each person to inwardly sense his or her innate worth and potential for greatness and to contribute his or her unique talents and passion—in other words, voice—to accomplish the organisation’s purpose and highest priorities in a principle-centered way. We could call this the Leadership Challenge.

In short, an organisation is made up of individuals who have a relationship and a shared purpose. You can see, then, how this organisational application applies to each one of us.

The process of Inspiring Others to Find Their Voice could be summarised in two words:

Focus and execution
Focus embodies the modeling and pathfinding roles as a proactive intention to affirm the worth and potential of those around us and to unite them as a complementary team in an effort to increase the influence and impact of the organisations and important causes we are part of. Being a model involves finding your own voice first and then choosing to take the initiative to expand your influence in every opportunity around you. Modeling character and competence lays the foundation for trust in every relationship and organisation. You cannot have trust without trustworthiness. Knowledge and application of this principle and of the principles underlying the pathfinding, which involves creating with others a common vision about your highest priorities and the values by which you will achieve your priorities, are together the doorway to influence.

The crucial question now becomes, ‘How do we execute both values and strategy consistently without relying on the formal leader’s continuing presence to keep everyone going in the right direction?’ The answer is in aligning structures, systems, processes and culture to the very principles that people have built into their value system to enable the vision to be realised. Aligning requires constant effort and adjustment because you are dealing with so many changing realities. Systems, structures and processes must remain flexible to adjust to these, yet remain based on unchanging principles. Within such a format it is easier for employees to release passion and talent, and for leaders to clear the way before them and then get out of the way. Empowerment is where the rubber meets the road in a team and is the culminating fruit of leadership.

The business environment today is challenging. Trust in leaders is at historic lows and challenges that once took years to materialise now arise overnight; competitive advantages vanish and there is a shortage of capital and talent. People are no longer satisfied with just showing up, they want to make a difference. The best people hire their employers, not the other way around, and the contribution they can make is more motivating than their paycheck. In times of high economic volatility, living by principles can provide a compass to tide over the storm.

Stephen R Covey is the vice-chairman of Franklin Covey Co, a global leader in organisational and personal effectiveness, with offices in over 148 countries (, and is an internationally respected and sought-after leadership authority, family expert, teacher and organisational consultant. Dr Covey is the author of several acclaimed books, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 15 million copies and is the largest-selling non-fictional book till date. He has also been recognised as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans.

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First Published: Tue, February 03 2009. 00:52 IST