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Leading with Character: The Meaning of Success

The Covid Pandemic caused a lot of stress this past year, partly because it disrupted general societal presumptions about the meaning of success. Over time, people have been conditioned to view success in quantifiable, but often temporal terms of “how much” they’ve achieved or “how many” possessions they have. Subconsciously, we evaluate people on the amount of money they make, the size of their house, their material possessions, the number of kids they have (and, whether those kids are successful), the hours they put in at work, their career accomplishments, and more. Most admired are often those who on the surface look like they “have it all.”

Pandemic Stress
Over the past year, many of us struggled as we adapted to a new paradigm that upended what it meant to “have it all.” We discovered a renewed sense of respect for health, family, and quality of life. Yet, many who had previously gone into an office every day were left somewhat adrift searching to find their fit. Suddenly thrown into working from home, often without an adequate office or the appropriate equipment, many felt isolated and questioned their value on the job.

Others found themselves overworked and striving to make it through each day. Although working around the clock to deliver healthcare, stock shelves, or manufacture goods, they might have finished each day stressed because they couldn’t save more people from dying or do more for people in need. Many who had previously felt successful started to question whether they were now falling short or evening failing.

Personality Matters
To help employees discover and achieve their definition of success during tumultuous times, leaders must better understand their people and what motivates each one of them. In her impactful book, Quiet, Susan Cain discusses the attributes of introverted people—like me. The lure of material possessions has never motivated me, but I’m keenly and curiously aware that for many others it does. Susan Cain explains the “reward system” in a person’s brain that influences desire and how it often produces a lesser response in those who are introverts.

I once knew a colleague who drove a fancy car that meant the world to her. I asked why. She enthusiastically proclaimed, “I went all-in for this car because the person with the most toys when they die wins!”

Her answer truly baffled me. I couldn’t conceive of someone feeling so strongly about material possessions. Even after reaching the executive level in the Coast Guard, I drove (and still drive) my 1999 Ford Escort. I take great satisfaction in applying the money saved to support worthy causes. Although I don’t need a new car to make me feel accomplished, I respect the other person’s interpretation of success—that’s real diversity.

A Personal Definition of Success
I never subscribed to the conventional definition of success, but always felt like I was fighting against the tide. Leaders must turn inward to discover, or rediscover, their interpretation of success—for themselves, their employees, and their organization—while guarding against prevailing societal pressures.

I challenge everyone, both leaders and followers, to stop, think, and reframe your definition of success. I believe success comes to those who discover a purpose for which they have passion, then draw upon their innate talents and apply their energy to achieve positive outcomes that advance the greater good. Doing so results in a deep sense of fulfillment, which is more enduring than temporary happiness that can come from more traditional measures of success.

Look in the mirror. Has the Covid pandemic changed your thoughts on what really matters in life? What’s your new definition of success? Have your expectations also changed regarding how you measure success in those you lead, and the success of your organization?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.