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Looking Back, Leading Forward

Recently I was asked this question: when did you first know that you were a leader?

My answer is too easy. I was the oldest of four children. Babysitting at the tender age of nine is my first memory of leadership responsibility. According to my siblings, I was a bit of a tyrant. But no one got lost or injured during my watch. Well, except for that one time my two-year-old brother split his forehead on the door knob.

Another memory of leadership is from my high school years. I volunteered to head up a service club – and found out just how difficult it is to lead volunteers. Ask my mother about this one.  The night before our club was supposed to sell corsages for St. Patrick’s Day, my mom and I made 150 carnation corsages. No one showed up to help.

Throughout our lives we have leadership experiences, and they shape our views of who we are as a leader and how we want to lead others. Reviewing these life experiences carefully can help us reach conviction about our leadership approach. And conviction is what gives us purpose.

What about you?  When did you first know that you were a leader? Or that you wanted to be one?

  • Perhaps you led a service project in high school.
  • Perhaps you were elected class president.
  • Perhaps your father died when you were 10 – and you felt a heavy sense of responsibility.
  • Perhaps you worked your way from entry level job to manager in your first job.
  • Perhaps you didn’t get a leadership role that you wanted…

What is your personal story and how does it shape who you are today?

Recently, I heard a leader describe his childhood in a challenging home situation. His mother worked to support the family. His father went to jail when he was young. The leader went to work – to help make ends meet. How did this story shape the leader today? He has tremendous empathy for those coming to the workforce from difficult homes. He is patient. He takes time to get to know the person. He withholds judgement. His past has shaped the future for this leader – and the life experiences have given him conviction about why he leads.

All of us have a story. A set of life experiences that have shaped us into who we are today. There is no right or wrong answer – for this is YOUR story.

If you mapped out a timeline of the major life experiences that shaped who you are as a leader, what two or three themes would surface?

There is no right answer. Just a set of life experiences that have shaped you into who you are today.

How can you use these experiences to help your team grow and perform?

In 2005, my husband and I adopted a daughter from Russia.  She was eleven years old.  Over the next several years, I learned about her life experiences in Russia – they were more difficult than I could have ever imagined. For good reason, our daughter finds it very difficult to trust other people. For me, this experience as an adoptive mother has given me conviction about how I want to lead. First, it has reminded me of the importance of creating “safe” workplaces where people can grow and thrive. And secondly, it has given me empathy and patience for those leaders with difficult histories, who trust slowly for good reason.

I encourage you to look at the experiences of your life. Chart them on a timeline. Look for the themes and the lessons that have made you who you are today. These observations will help you build conviction about who you want to be as a leader – and what your purpose is in the workplace.

You can find the Journey to Purpose exercise on my website: SERVING PERFORMS at cherylbachelder.com.

We cannot change our past – but we can use the past to find our convictions, and our purpose for leadership, for the benefit of those we serve.

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