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Leading with Character: The Meaning of Success

On top of the day-to-day stress many of us face it seems wherever we go and whatever we do, we’re being judged by others—or worse yet judging ourselves—on the level of success we’ve achieved. We can’t help comparing ourselves to others to see how well we measure up. But is that really a true gauge?

In writing my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, I spent much time in introspection regarding the meaning of success. After all, I wrote the book to help others find their pathway to success. Yes, I had risen up through the ranks in the US Coast Guard from the lowly position of cadet (student) at the Coast Guard Academy to an admiral (senior executive) in the organization. But, was that rise to the top really evidence of success?

Success Means Living a Life of Satisfaction, Fulfillment, and Purpose
Success means different things to different people, and that’s an important realization. To me, it was never the rank and position or material possessions that mattered most. Rather, I came to see that in the broadest sense, success meant living a life from which one derives a deep sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and purpose.

I was inspired to write this week’s blog when I came across a Facebook post by my good friend, Maralyn Marsteller. She posted a short poem, often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the meaning of success:

What is Success?

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world 
a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has 
breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The poem is powerful because it enables individuals to envision a meaning of success they can achieve from the strength of where they are. People from every walk of life can see themselves as having purpose. Whether they work behind the scenes supporting others in an under-appreciated service position, or in top leadership. Whether they work for a large salary, or receive no financial compensation for their efforts. Whether they enjoy good health, or manage afflictions.

A Source of Inspiration
When I focus on each verse of that simple poem, I realize where I’ve fallen short in my journey to lead a successful life. Nowhere does it say “making it to the top of your organization.” I’m inspired to become a better person: to laugh more; to find the best in others; to leave the world a better place. We all need inspiration on our journey and we often find it in the darndest places, like a friend’s Facebook posting.

But good leaders don’t let inspiration happen by chance, they take action to inspire others. They work hard to model the way; they look for opportunities to help their people learn and grow; they reward top performance in a meaningful manner. They are servant leaders who help each individual discover, and achieve, his or her version of success.

Look in the mirror. What does success mean to you? Even more important, do you know what success means to the people you work with, and what are you doing as a leader to help them achieve their version of success?

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

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: