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Leading with Character: Give Up and Take Up

In the Western Christian religion, many people observe Lent. The season runs from Ash Wednesday, observed on February 14th this year to Easter Sunday, which falls on March 31st. The Lenten period represents the 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert before being crucified on the cross. During those 40 days, Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn away from God. It’s a tradition for Christians to give up something during Lent to demonstrate self-discipline, as did Jesus in the desert.

Two Sides of the Same Coin
Thinking about the meaning of Lent, I imagine a correlation with leadership. Leading with character requires discipline. Every single day of the year, not just for 40 days. And discipline isn’t just a matter of giving up something, it’s equally important to take up something. Giving up and taking up; two sides of the same coin. I see Lent as an opportunity for both self-improvement and selfless service.

Giving Up: Intent Requires Action
Let’s address the give-up, or self-improvement first. Those who know me know I talk too much (just ask my husband, Bob!). It’s a trait I may have developed in my earlier years to compensate for my shyness. Or perhaps for being the only or one of the only women among all the men, and feeling like I needed to be heard. Whatever the cause, it’s a behavior I’d like to improve. Thus, my give-up is trying to talk less and listen more; to avoid interrupting other people; to remember to ground myself in who and where I am now, not who and where I’ve been.

Those efforts are all about putting others first. I’d like to think I put others first, but my actions don’t always mirror my intent. Actions matter. For those leaders who would like to improve themselves by giving up a habit or behavior, I recommend:

  • Establish specific actions that support each effort;
  • Follow through, and
  • Follow up at the end of each day to evaluate progress toward the goal.

I’ve found journaling or keeping a log/record an effective way to evaluate progress toward a desired goal. Both the effort to become a better person/leader and following up require discipline. It’s a virtuous cycle which, if followed, will lead to the self-improvement one seeks.

Taking Up: A Cause for Action
Now for the take-up, or selfless service. In some ways, it’s easier to try to give up something than to take up something. Most of us, as in my example above, have an idea of what we could give up to become better people and leaders. But I believe it’s harder to conceptualize what we could take up to make our homes and workplaces more welcoming, receptive, and productive. Last week I was given a unique opportunity to experience what it means to take up.

I’m blessed to be a member of the board of directors of a midsized fraternal financial services company located in Rock Island, IL. Fraternal means we’re member-owned and we invest in our members’ communities. Modern Woodmen of America has a strong service-centric culture and a family feel.

Last Sunday, prior to our quarterly board meeting, we board members partnered with a local food kitchen to serve about 90 needy people. I think we all came away feeling like we got more than we gave from that humbling experience. It inspired me to contemplate more deeply about serving others and to plan out one thing I can do each day to put something into the kitty to help make our world a better place.

So, following up on the momentum from the food kitchen, the next day I wrote a letter to commend a good deed I witnessed. But what will today, tomorrow, and the next 34 days bring? I need to pull out my calendar and plan, and then demonstrate the self-discipline to follow through. Again, a journal or log will be a useful tool for me. For those leaders who would like to serve by taking up something, I recommend:

  • For the week ahead, plan something to do each day to serve or recognize someone else;
  • Follow through; and
  • Follow up at the end of each day to contemplate whether the action had the desired impact and what you could do next.

Giving up and taking up to improve oneself, one’s community, and beyond is a uniquely personal journey. It requires discipline. Discipline to turn intent into action and to follow up with self-evaluation. Most of us never deliberately start the process; we’re just too busy. We take each day as it comes. Why not start living more intentionally by giving up and taking up today?

Look in the mirror: What habits or behaviors could you give up for self-improvement, and what efforts or actions could you take up in selfless service to become a better leader?

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

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