‘Stay awake’

As we move into a new year, I am reminded of a story in the book: “Leadership From the Inside Out,” by Kevin Cashman.

“A priest was confronted by a soldier while he was walking down a road in pre-revolutionary Russia. The soldier, aiming his rifle at the priest, commanded: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?’ Unfazed, the priest calmly replied, ‘How much do they pay you?’ Surprised, the soldier responded, ‘Twenty-five kopecks a month.’ The priest paused, and in a deeply thoughtful manner said, ‘I have a proposal for you. I will pay you 50 kopecks each month if you stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same three questions.”

Who are you?

People who count on you want to know who you are. They want to know what you believe; what you fear; what you dream. They want to know what your vision is for the future and what your capacity is to navigate the turbulent waters of uncertainty. In the workplace and at home, others want to see you as a leader who lives with integrity, someone who walks the talk. Others will look to you to determine what choices they will make for themselves. They will expect you to be consciously aware of the impact of your behavior and decisions.

Where are you going?

In our work, we often find those who believe that in order to succeed, they must forfeit their time and their relationships. What is the cost to a leader who spends most of the year away from their spouse and family in order to fulfill the requirements of the job? Do we consider what the potential long-term cost is to an organization if we expect our leaders to live a one-dimensional life indefinitely?

A young leader was facing the decision to accept or reject the offer of a promotion that would cost him time away from his family. In our conversation, he verbalized his struggle with the pull toward more status vs. remaining in his current position. There was a time when what he valued was upward mobility. Today, he realizes that the price he will pay will exceed the benefit of status or money. In order for him to come to that realization, he needed to slow down the process and examine his values against the offer presented to him. We used a value exercise to help to clarify his desire. I asked that he write down five things that were most important to him in his work. He identified: the satisfaction of providing for and being with his family, the ability to support others, service, learning and influence. When I asked him to eliminate each, one by one, until he had one value left that was most important to him, he did so reluctantly. However, in doing the exercise, he realized that what he found to be most important to him he already has in his current job. Assuming the new role may cost him what he values most. This clarity will influence his conversation and his decision.

Why are you going there?

Knowing that our behavior is much louder than the words we use to communicate is an opportunity for leaders to appreciate what it takes to “stay awake.” These are everyday decisions. For example, a leader needs to have minor surgery and was advised by physicians that she needs to take two full days to rest. She told me that she had her assistant schedule a meeting for direct reports to come to her home on the second day, stating that she can “rest and meet at the same time.”

When asked if she would expect that of direct reports, she said, “Absolutely not. I would advise them to take the time they need to heal.” When I suggested that they would not believe her because her demonstrated behavior was louder than her words, she realized that she often behaves in ways that are not consistent with what she would ask of others. She had her assistant cancel the meeting.

A New Year invites us to reflect on how we have been living our lives. Perhaps, as we consider New Year resolutions, we will meet the soldier within us and have the courage to answer the three questions that will shape our lives in 2013. “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?”

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in emotional intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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