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Are you called to leadership?

In our world of smart phones, latest research studies, and the newest "must see" viral videos, we've lost some basic wisdom about leadership, and we're paying a big price for the loss. When it comes to careers, the most important bit of old-world wisdom is that people are called to vocations, like engineering, science, law, education, the military, medicine -- and leadership.

You need to know if you are called to leadership. If you are, acting on the call will benefit you, your family, and most of all, the people you lead. If you're not, you'll be wasting your time, frustrating people, deluding yourself, and neglecting some other call that is your true path.

Having had this discussion with a few thousand people, many will interrupt at this point with the question: "What do you mean 'call?'" I mean it as a term that describes a common experience. In the same that we say, "The sun rises," even though we all know the Earth actually rotates, we've all seen the sun rise at dawn. The common experience makes the outdated expression stick. It's the same with a "call" to a vocation. It might sound like I'm referring to God, genetics, your true self, natural ability making itself apparent, angels whispering in your ear, the result of space alien probes, or your unconscious connecting the dots. I don't know where the call originates. I do know that people who have heard it know exactly what I'm talking about.

So how can you know if you're called to leadership?

First, if all the benefits of leading were taken away from the job, would you still find yourself leading? In Phoenix a few weeks ago, as I was having lunch with company CEOs just before giving a keynote for Vistage International, I was embarrassed into remembering this lesson that is so easily forgotten. I'm paying what I believe is an insanely high tax rate, since my income is earned in California and I operate a business in Los Angeles. I added up those taxes and ran a percentage against my adjusted gross income. I shared the resulting frustration with the CEO, adding: "It makes me want to hang this up and go do something else." The CEO, without missing a beat, said "And how could live with yourself if you did that?"

If you're called to leadership, you'd respond to that as I did: "Ouch." People who answer a call often say that they "can do no other." This phrase is attributed to Martin Luther, as a reason for opposing the religious authorities of his day, despite a high probability of a very bad outcome for him and his family. Whether he actually uttered the words or not, they capture the experience of one who is answering a call: "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Second, look back at your past correspondence, especially to good friends, in your email archive or personal writings. Pretend you are looking at someone else's writing, as you flip back through time in email, or a journal if you keep one. Ask yourself: Is this person talking as one who "can do no other" when it comes to leadership?

Third, run through a worst-case scenario: Your efforts fail, no one follows, and you find yourself at a career rock bottom. What would you do? Most leaders would find another way to move forward. Some from the outside applaud their resilience, but that's not the internal experience. Leaders lead because they can do no other.

Fourth, see if your life matches a common profile. In research for Tribal Leadership, we heard three experiences over and over from great leaders:

1. A curiosity that they can't explain about the field, the people in it, and its true nature. In leadership, people are drawn to the study of the field, and examples of leaders. They love biographies of leaders in all parts of life, from heads of state to religious leaders to industrialists. Their minds wrestle with the patterns, and with the lack of patterns, as they work out their own leadership approach. I believe this last point is why Warren Bennis refers to leaders as "conceptualists" -- they are drawn to the principles that make leadership function, as they also wrestle with how to apply them.

2. Early abilities. Leadership prodigies weren't necessarily out in front from the beginning, but they were refining their abilities, and for some, waiting for the right moment to step forward. Even in the quiet period, however, they were gaining respect, an awareness of themselves, and their powers of influence.

3. This curiosity, and natural abilities, have always been with them.

Leaders find themselves unable to do anything else. People with the call can often spot others who have it, too, as the CEO at the Vistage meeting did with me. And the greatest sin of people called to leadership is to confuse the reason we're doing it with the perks that come with the job. I had committed that sin, and this CEO gently called me out on it.

I believe I am also called as a teacher. That's easier to say, because people don't associate teaching with stock options, golden parachutes, or company cars. But when people say they are called to leadership, we often think of a self-deluded narcissist that would be at home next to Michael Scott on The Office or Bill Lumbergh in Office Space. The points in this blog post will usually filter out the self-obsessed achievement junkies from people with a legitimate call to leadership.

If you find yourself with the leadership call, there's a lot you should be doing, even need to be doing. Read, reflect, and experiment. Notice your patterns. What do you find yourself doing? What aspects of leadership most appeal to you?

A recurrent theme in this blog is that leadership can't be reduced to a formula or set of steps. It's also a field with many charlatans, pretenders, and self-deluded people, most of who are going for the goodies, rather than people who "can do no other."

I have some more advice for people who find themselves called to leadership in my personal blog.

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