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I define leadership as taking responsibility for the quality of your own life; and making a difference by inspiring shared learning, action, and kindness. It doesn’t require position or titles; rather a sense of agency and a desire to serve. It is great when I see these qualities demonstrated by positional leaders, but we don’t need to wait for anyone else to make us a leader.  Leadership is something we can choose for ourselves.

Deepen self-awareness

Leadership starts with knowing yourself and making choices about your thinking, being and doing. I used to think of this as self-help or improvement. Now I think of it more as a process of becoming. Recognizing the difference helped me to shift from trying to  fix or change my fundamental nature, to working with it to be more authentic. This can lead to greater effectiveness, and also greater energy and joy.

let your life speak book club novel study

Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak elucidates this principle brilliantly. While it is possible to achieve success in the world through hard work and discipline, I found that if the work or the conditions were not mostly aligned with my deep nature, it sucked the life out of me. Palmer goes so far to say that we can do harm to others when we are trying to live a life that isn’t ours to live. As a positional leader, seeking greater self-awareness  was a path back to authentic life and leadership for me. When we know ourselves—our strengths, personality, passions and tendencies—we can make choices that are better aligned with who we are and be energized from doing meaningful work.

Who are you?

When I teach courses on leadership, I start by having students complete a number of inventories such as:


It is helpful to think of your results as opening possibilities, rather than as a box or straight jacket. When you know your type or tendency, you can make decisions that enhance your life, without being bound by them. The Four Tendency test might indicate that you are an obliger, responding primarily to the expectations of others. Knowing this, you can do one of two things. You can recognize when you need to stop letting someone else’s expectations drive your choices, especially if that is not serving you well. Or you can use that to be more effective, asking a friend to help you be accountable to your goals.

Self-knowledge gives you insight to make choices that are good for you.

It is powerful to consider the results of different inventories alongside each other. They may confirm certain aspects of your identity, or provide a deeper understanding of how that element interacts with other aspects of your being.  There are many inventories and personality tests out there. I take advantage of any opportunity I can to know myself better, always reserving the right to decide how I want to use what I discover.

Reflect on the results in context

Once you begin to gather this information, it is important to reflect on it, and start paying attention to how these aspects show up in your life. Take a few moments at the end of each day, or week to notice what is happening and learn from it.

Inquire into what is happening on your worst days. What does that reveal about who you are, and the conditions that might allow you to thrive? What tasks caused angst? Is there somebody else who can do that instead of you?  Maybe you need to learn some skills. Maybe that is not really yours to do.

When you have a great day, and come home feeling energized, inquire into that too. What made it such a great day? What did you love doing? What were you really good at? How can you infuse more of that into your life?

As a new principal I reflected weekly on these four questions:

  • What did I like about this week?
  • What did I do well?
  • What didn’t I like about this week?
  • What would I do differently?

Deepening my self awareness through inventories and ongoing reflection have been key strategies for steering my life in the direction that I want. It has been informative to re-evaluate my values over times. Some of them remain, and others seem to shift, depending on my life stage. This process has  been instrumental in getting to a place where I spend more of my time doing the things I love and am good at.

Choose how you would most like to make a difference

 The work of becoming is never finished, but as you have a greater sense of insight into who you are, and what brings you joy, your path of authentic service may start to be revealed. Who are the people in front of you? How might you enrich their lives?

Are you a teacher in the midst of a pandemic, struggling with teaching online? Initiate a learning community to help you and your colleagues improve your skills.  Do you see a need in your community? Invite those around you to come together to explore ways to address it. You don’t need to have all the answers to be a leader, simply the will to make a difference, and the courage to act.

Learn your way forward in community.

Perhaps you have a passion or area of expertise. How might you act on that interest or strength to be of service? Frederick Buechner defines vocation as that place where your deep gladness meets the world deep need. The world needs everything, so you might as well start with what brings you joy, because it will energize you in the giving. It is great if you can focus on your passion within your paid work. If that isn’t happening for you, then you can try things out in a volunteer capacity.

Is there a cause that is close to your heart? Are you concerned about the wellbeing of newcomers to the community? Or families who have children with disabilities? Find an agency that serves that group or reach out to people you know to learn what the needs really are. Make inquiries to find out how you might be of service in a way that is aligned with your strengths, interests and capacities.

I needed to give myself permission to pay attention to my gladness. My religious training focused so much on sacrifice, and obedience, that I had lost touch with my ability to know what I wanted to do, or what gave me joy. I served in a lot of different ways, and felt stressed and tired most of the time. Writing a mission statement was a strategic activity that gave me permission to focus my energy in a direction of my choosing. It helped me recognize and say yes to the things that were mine to do, and no to other things.  You can learn more about that by reading my blog post on how to write a mission statement.

Setting Intentions for the New Year

In this blog, I have described leadership in simple terms, in relation to what we are in control of. The real process of stepping into leadership is messy and complex, like the world we live in. Developing self-awareness and choosing a place of service are iterative. Personal knowledge influences my choices, which in turn teaches me more about myself. Growth is in the rhythm of striving and wondering, and learning and adjusting.

It is helpful to engage in these self-awareness exercises periodically over time, especially if you change jobs, or find yourself in a new stage of life. Some aspects of your selfhood will remain the same. Other things will change. The more you create space and permission for your authentic self to emerge, the more insight you will gain.

As we begin a new year, with the pandemic still impacting many aspects of our life, I invite you to take some time to inquire into what brought joy and meaning to your life last year.  Identify those things that did not enhance your life. Getting clear on both could result in changing habits that aren’t serving you, and amplifying the positive. If the pandemic has opened up some time and space in your life, you could start to think about how you might be of service, whatever that means for you. Another great option is to read an inspiring book. Check out my virtual book salon for some books that can inspire your journey.

In a time when so many are working within a framework of scarcity and greed, you can demonstrate leadership by joining together with like-minded people to infuse more generosity, creativity, compassion, beauty, and opportunity into your community. If not you, then who? If not now, when? Who do you choose to be? The world is waiting for your unique and valuable contribution.