I recently spent time at Alcatraz…as a tourist, of course. The old federal penitentiary hasn’t housed prisoners since 1963. As a history nerd it was fascinating to walk the same halls as some of the world’s most famous criminals like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “birdman” of Alcatraz.
Some of the prison cell doors are open so you can walk inside and get a sense for what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space. The cells are five feet wide, seven feet tall, and nine feet long. I could reach my arms out to the side and place my palms on the walls of the cell. The concrete walls hold the frigid chill of the San Francisco Bay and the steel doors are hard and unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space for hours on end, day after day, year after year.
Prison cells aren’t just concrete rooms with steel doors; they can be rooms of our own making. (click to tweet) All of us, in various areas of our lives, have constructed cells that imprison us and constrain our ability to experience true freedom and joy.
In the realm of leadership, some of us are career criminals doing hard time and the only life we know is within the four walls of our prison cell. These leaders are guilty of crimes like wielding power as a weapon, hoarding information, sucking up to the hierarchy, micromanaging, breaking trust, playing politics, and over-reliance on command and control styles of leadership. Most of us leaders aren’t hardened criminals serving a life sentence, but we dabble in our share of petty theft that puts us behind bars from time to time.
There are ways you can escape from the prison of ineffective leadership practices, but it takes planning, patience, and perseverance. You didn’t build those walls overnight and it’s going to take time to tunnel your way out. Here are four steps to break out of your leadership prison cell:
Discover Your Leadership Purpose
Why do you lead? Answer that question and you’ve discovered your leadership purpose. Discovering your leadership purpose is an introspective process that takes time and effort, but the result is an internal clarity and drive that inspires and fuels your work as a leader.
The process for discovering your leadership purpose begins with reflecting on your own leadership role models. How did those people influence you? What about the way they led others inspired you? What did you learn from them and how do you display that in your own leadership style? Second, how does your leadership connect with your larger life purpose? Do you see your role as a leader integrated with your overall life purpose? Are you clear on your greatest strengths and how you can use them to positively impact the world around you? Third, what is the legacy you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered for the way you influenced those you lead?
As you wrestle with these tough questions, you’ll eventually gain insight into your leadership purpose. Writing a simple purpose statement will help crystallize your thoughts and provide a reminder of why you do what you do as a leader. Do an internet search for “writing a personal mission statement” and you’ll find dozens of excellent resources and templates. As an example, my purpose statement is To use my gifts and abilities to be a servant leader and a model of God’s grace and truth.
Define Your Leadership Values
Leadership is an influence process. As a leader you are trying to influence others to believe in certain things and act in specific ways. How can you do that if you aren’t clear on your own values? What drives your own behaviors? You have to be clear on that before you can expect to influence others…at least in a positive way.
In the absence of clearly defined values, I believe people tend to default to the more base, self-centered values we all possess: self-preservation, survival, ego, power, position. As an example, my core values are trust, authenticity, and respect. I look to those values to guide my interactions with others. Just as river banks channel and direct the flow of rushing water, so values direct our behaviors. What is a river without banks? A large puddle. Our leadership effectiveness is diffused without values to guide its efforts.
Declare Your Leadership Brand
Your brand image is not only how people perceive you (your reputation), but also what differentiates you from everyone else in your company. When your colleagues and team members think of you, what is it that comes to their minds?
Tom Peters, the guru of personal branding, says, “If you are going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, what you’re proud of, and most important, what you can shamelessly take credit for.” Now, I’m not into shamelessly bragging about personal accomplishments, but I do think it’s important, and possible, to tactfully and appropriately share your successes.
Forget your job title. What is it about your performance as a leader that makes you memorable, distinct, or unique? What’s the “buzz” on you? Forget about your job description too. What accomplishments are you most proud of? How have you gone above, beyond, or outside the scope of your job description to add value to your organization? Those are the elements that make up your brand.
Deliver on Your Leadership Promise
If you’ve ever removed the cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, you may have noticed this statement printed on the side of the cup:
Our Barista Promise
Love your beverage or let us know. We’ll always make it right.
My experience with Starbucks is they live that promise. Whenever I’ve not been satisfied with my drink, they’ve always made it right.
Your leadership promise is the combination of your purpose, values, and brand. It’s who your people expect you to be as a leader and it’s how they expect you to behave. Whether you’ve articulated your leadership purpose, values, and brand to your people or not (which I strongly advocate you do), they have ascribed a leadership promise to you based on your past behavior. You are setting yourself up to break trust with your followers if their perception of your leadership promise doesn’t align with your own.
Escape from Alcatraz
It was simple for me to leave the island when my time was done on Alcatraz; I boarded the ferry and rode across the bay to San Francisco. It wasn’t nearly as easy for the prisoners who once called Alcatraz home. Likewise, it won’t be easy for you to escape your self-constructed prison cell of dysfunctional leadership practices, but it is doable with intentional focus and effort. Discovering your leadership purpose will direct your energies, clarifying your values will guide your activities, declaring your brand will let others know what you stand for, and delivering on your leadership promise will hold you accountable to being the leader you aspire to be and the leader your people need and deserve.