Defining Moments of Leadership – Will you define the moment or will the moment define you?

It’s inevitable. Through the course of your leadership journey you will be faced with defining moments. Defining moments are those situations that require you to make a tough decision or take a stand on a controversial issue.

Will you define the moment, or will the moment define you?

Consider the news headlines of recent events in society, politics, sports, and business that illustrate defining moments for several prominent leaders:

  • “Cameron vows ‘uncompromising measures’ in dealing with riots” – U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, faced the challenging situation of how to respond to rioting in the streets of London after a fatal police shooting. Was he too slow to respond? Is he properly managing the tensions between the government and police force?
  • “U.S. debt crisis: Is Obama’s leadership style suited to the moment?” – President Obama had to navigate rough political waters in route to getting the debt ceiling raised. Was he assertively leading the effort to bring the parties together to reach a deal, or was he too hands-off by leaving the negotiations and details to leaders in Congress?
  • “Shalala Breaks Silence Over UM Allegations” – University of Miami President, Donna Shalala (former Secretary of Health & Human Services under President Clinton), is currently dealing with an athletic department scandal involving a former booster who claims he provided athletes with cash, jewelry and prostitutes over an eight-year period, several of which were under Shalala’s watch. How will she respond?
  • “Gay advocates pressured Starbucks chairman to cancel church speech” – Last week Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, faced a defining moment when he decided to cancel his speaking appearance at the Global Leadership Summit, an annual leadership training event hosted by Willow Creek Church. His cancellation was prompted by an online petition signed by slightly over 700 people who expressed concern that he was speaking at a church that was “anti-gay” (see the response from Willow Creek’s Pastor, Bill Hybels). Did Schultz do the right thing or was his decision short-sighted?

The defining moments for most of us may not approach the scope or severity of the ones mentioned above, but the principles for handling them remain the same. I would offer the following suggestions to help you prepare for your defining moments of leadership:

  1. Be crystal clear on your personal values – Your values should serve as the primary filter in your decision-making process. If you aren’t clear on the values that motivate and guide your life and leadership actions, you’ll be like a rudderless ship tossed about on a stormy sea. When faced with difficult decisions, ask yourself if the action you’re about to take is in alignment with your values and if it will contribute to the growth and welfare of the stakeholders involved.
  2. Develop a Leadership Point of View (LPOV) – If you understand your LPOV – what motivates you as a leader, your life purpose and values, your beliefs about leading people, and the legacy you want to leave as a leader – you will be better equipped to sort through the complex issues that need to be addressed when those defining moments arrive. Instead of just focusing on the immediate impact of the issue at hand, understanding your LPOV helps you take a long-range view of the consequences of your leadership actions.
  3. Expect to be criticized – President Harry Truman is famously known for having a sign on his desk that stated The BUCK STOPS Here! Leaders will be faced with moments of truth when they, and only they, can make the decision. With that responsibility has to come the knowledge that there will always be some who disagree with you and won’t be afraid to say so! Keeping your eye on the goal and making your decisions in alignment with your personal and organizational values will keep you pointed in the right direction.
  4. Understand that there will be a personal cost – Rarely are there instances when defining moments do not exact a personal toll. The cost may be stress, popularity, fortune, or friendship. I suggest that leaders handle defining moments with contemplation and conversation. Making rash, snap judgments based on gut feel can be a leadership death knell. If possible, thoroughly vet decisions and seek input and guidance from trusted advisors.
  5. Learn from the past – It’s easier to recognize a defining moment after the fact. Unfortunately, that usually means you missed the opportunity to maximize your influence and the moment defined you. Review and assess previous defining moments you’ve experienced. What were the circumstances? How did you react? What could you have done differently? Just like a sailor learns to predict weather patterns based on the color of the sky, the type or movement of clouds, and the direction of the wind, leaders can become more aware of the conditions of defining moments by analyzing their past experiences.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
Herb Brooks, Coach of 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team

Have you had defining moments in your leadership journey? Feel free to leave a comment and share what you’ve learned.

2 Comments on “Defining Moments of Leadership – Will you define the moment or will the moment define you?

  1. Pingback: Defining Moment | AC's World

  2. Well stated! The challenge of defining the moment and not allowing the moment to define you comes with understanding what is most important to you in your effort to lead. Do you want to empower others to realize their full potential or do you want to control and dictate the outcome that is a personal definition of what you think is “best” for others. This is the true defining moment that comes when personal values and beliefs interesect with ego and pride and personal advancement.

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