Leadership is About Expressing Yourself – Not Proving Yourself

Kathryn Scanland Leadership

Leadership is first being, then doing.  Everything the leader does reflects what he or she is.  Therefore, leadership is about expressing yourself, not proving yourself.  ~Warren Bennis
I recently attended a concert—and I’ve attended hundreds over the course of my adult life—but this time one of the musicians said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard uttered from the stage. She said, “thank you for letting us serve you with our music.”  When she made that statement I realized one of the reasons I had enjoyed the concert so much was that all three of the musicians in this group were on stage to simply reveal and disclose who they were. It was very much an expression of their lives and they let us (the audience) sit in and listen for the evening.
As Bennis suggests, expressing yourself could be contrasted with proving yourself. We’ve all known people dead set on proving who they are and we’ve all slipped into this chasm at one time or another. Our efforts become a means to justify, validate and convince others of our worth to the project, the department or the organization. It’s very hard to be drawn to someone trying to prove themselves; on the contrary, we tend to be repulsed by what feels like a very self-centered existence.
Entrepreneur Larry Wilson said that “the difference between desire and drive is the like the difference between expressing yourself and proving yourself.”  It might sound like a fine line, but the outcome of drive without desire can be devastating. Warren Bennis said, “We must understand that drive is healthy only when married to desire.  Drive divorced from desire is often hazardous, sometimes lethal, while drive in the service of desire is often both productive and rewarding.”
It really comes down to what others see first. Do they see your drive (proving yourself) or do they see your desire (expressing yourself)? Do they see your obsession with hitting a sales goal or target, or do they see a genuine yearning to make your clients’ lives better? Bennis used the analogy of drive having to be married to desire.  I’d take that a bit farther and suggest the analogy that desire plays the leading role in your theatrical production and drive plays the supporting role. There is a distinct position and purpose for each but one must always be viewed as primary and the other as secondary. In this case, the chicken really does come before the egg.
In a Google search for “a leader with something to prove,” the first page or so of results were all sports-related.   That leads me to think that when the primary focus is proving something, it means there are going to be winners and losers. When I changed the search to “a leader with something to express,” I got results about principled, exceptional and focused leadership.
Getting back to my recent concert, these three musicians have not recorded a gold record but they have been together for 20 years. They are clearly driven given their ability to write songs, rehearse, tour, do their own booking and maintain other jobs/sources of income on the side. But during the concert, I didn’t see any of that. I saw three very talented, gifted artists who wanted to enable their audience to laugh a lot, cry a little, and be caught up in their artistic expression.
As leaders, are others being drawn into our artistic expression or are they being distracted by our drive to prove our own worth?
Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

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