My economics teacher asked each of us what we thought was the meaning of life. The answers were as varied as were those occupying desks. It seemed an odd question to me for the first class session of the course. I could have understood the question more in a philosophy course. But economics?
Over time I began to see what was behind it. All of life and the actions thereof are transactions. We exchange one thing for another. On a small scale we exchange money or goods for services or goods. We pay the mortgage or rent, keep the lights on and water running, and put food on the table. But the money comes from somewhere, almost always from your job or investments. Wherever the source, it is an exchange.
On a large scale, we spend our time and energy, both in limited supply, on something or some things. We work, we play, we sleep, we eat. Since time and energy are limited to the course of life, we literally do give our lives in exchange for something.
And that is the reason behind the question offered by an economics teacher – what is the meaning of life? Philosophically that question may be answered directly or evaded by proposing and arguing a wide range of pondered responses, all of them the subject of discussions, arguments, and books throughout the centuries.
Add one word and ask another question.
But if the question is asked adding one four letter word, the answer becomes impossible to evade. So, let’s add that word and ask “What is the meaning of YOUR life?”
Some may be confused as to why I include this subject in a blog on leadership. But I stand firm on the question. The series in which this article is inserted is counting the 16 qualities of a superlative leader. There can be no superlative leadership without a superlative leader manifesting it.
Each and every superlative leader personifies the answer by who they are which has demonstrated itself in what they do. Superlative leaders have elevated the meaning of their lives above average folks. They are exceptional in that they are making their lives count for something.
Why and how do we make our lives count?
Why? And how do we know this? I’ll answer the last question first. We know it by the fruit of their existence. They make a difference for themselves and for others. Their impact is far-reaching. They are people of significance. When they are gone they are missed. While they are here they are respected and regarded.
The “why” part of the question is less easily answered. I’d like to say they are altruistic but that just doesn’t hold up. Indeed, I believe that all actions are self-serving. They are often not selfish, but they are self-serving. They satisfy needs, desires, wants, ambitions, and expectations residing deep inside a person’s soul. Superlative leaders exude purpose. They live lives driven to accomplish and influence. It is part and parcel of their nature.
Can leadership be taught?
I have colleagues who believe that leadership can be taught, that anyone can become a leader. I do not believe that. I believe the gift of leadership is innate; one is born with the skills and attitudes that place them ahead of the pack. I do believe that time, experience, education, and training make the leadership gift more effective. I do not believe, and have never seen, leadership manifest itself in one who does not have the gifts.
Management tasks and skills can be taught. Leadership skills and tasks are honed, sharpened through time, training, and trials. A true gifted leader can do nothing less than lead. S/he will always rise to the top, move to the front, shoulder the responsibility, and make the difference.
It is their purpose in life to lead, to make a difference, to take charge.
People who believe they have purpose in life to lead work harder, accomplish more, and live longer than do their peers. It truly is a calling and I am not speaking religiously. While most will be quite content to go to work, collect a paycheck, and spend that paycheck on flat screen televisions and fun-filled weekends, superlative leaders will not, indeed cannot be content with just that.
They need to feel successful. They need to recognize progress. They need to make decisions, to establish direction, to make things happen.
And they do.
How to recognize purpose.
And here’s how that happens…and why you as a superlative leader yourself, outdistance yourself from mere mortals. You recognize a sense of purpose because:
- You have an elevated mindset. Some men lay bricks, you build cathedrals. You see farther. You understand how this act leads to that achievement. You don’t live from paycheck to paycheck. You live from beginning to end, from start to finish, out of the past into the future. The little things you do may appear to be random and incidental to some but you understand that great accomplishments are realized through dozens, perhaps hundreds of small acts.
- You think optimistically. I am not suggesting a positive thinking fantasy as is often promoted. Positive thinkers simply reject or discount negative evidence. Optimistic thinkers are quite aware of the circumstances and conditions, good and bad, but they have confidence in their abilities and that of those with whom they have surrounded themselves that obstacles can be overcome, setbacks can be reversed, and bad can be displaced with good and that is will not happen simply because one vocalizes positive words or harbors positive thoughts. Superlative leaders know it will happen as the result of definitive and intelligent action.
- You think in terms of accomplishments and achievements not merely tasks and activities. True enough you do lots of things. You check off lists of tasks and you stay plenty busy. But you measure life…and the purpose of it…in terms of what’s been realized, what’s been accomplished, not just how busy you’ve been. Doing lots of things may be enough for some. Superlative leaders do things that accomplish much. You do not ask yourself what you have done nor do you satisfy yourself with being busy. You ask yourself what has been accomplished.
- You rephrase and restate your life in terms of what’s important. Your values manifest themselves as consequential to what you do. You may sell furniture but you understand that you are providing others with furnishings that make up a home. Your company may sell windows and doors but you know you are providing security and beauty for people who need protection form the elements and intruders. You may teach a class but you understand that you are giving information and tools to people who can build a life with what you’re teaching.
- You can answer 5 questions about your life.
- Why do I have a job?
- Why must I and my co-workers do our jobs?
- What do my customers, clients, or constituents want as a result of my job?
- Why is that important to them?
- Why does that matter to me?
When you can internalize and answer the above, you have begun to recognize purpose for your life. You begin to realize it has meaning far above what you might have ever thought. Superlative leaders do this all the time. It keeps them going because purpose is the total of life’s experiences and responsibilities, not the end result. It is the journey, not the destination.