There are three phases to becoming an inspirational leader and all three require different types of work.
When my business partners and I started In Time Tec in 2009, we worked HARD. We all still had full-time jobs and were working on In Time Tec during any free time we had. We were often up early and going to bed late, spending most of our evenings and weekends in our home offices taking phone calls, closing deals, completing projects; seemingly sacrificing our time with family and friends for the pursuit of this dream. We did this until some of us were in a position to quit our full-time jobs and hire employees. Even then, we didn’t stop working hard. We had to establish infrastructure and operational policies, address HR laws, set the vision and execute on strategy, build competencies, grow revenue, manage the finances, and learn so much.
During all this time, we were also beginning our journey of hard work. Working with other people is always more complex than working alone, because humans are beautifully complex creatures with different experiences and goals and values. Being individual contributors or managers in previous jobs had prepared us to start a business. It had not prepared us to be the kind of inspirational leaders we are today; that happened when we all got very clear about the kind of company we were building and the kind of leaders we needed to be to get us there.
Difference between “working hard” and “doing hard work”
These two phrases are often interchangeable and you might not immediately know the difference. It is an important distinction to recognize as you look at the kind of work you are doing as a leader.
Working hard simply means putting in the hours and completing the required tasks. It requires knowledge and hard skills and often includes long hours, to-do lists, research, and plenty of productivity. It produces the desired results and helps move the needle forward.
On the other hand, doing hard work requires more soft skills and emotional intelligence. It means connecting with others in a way that leaves them touched, moved, and inspired to be more, do more, and have more in life. Hard work transforms human beings for the better and creates a healthy and productive company culture.
Both are required to be successful in your career. Only working hard will ensure you are a great individual contributor, while working hard AND doing hard work will make you a great leader.
There are three distinct phases people who are committed to making a difference will go through as they discover themselves as a leader:
- Phase one: Outstanding Individual Contributor
- Phase two: Emerging Leader (aka manager)
- Phase three: Inspirational Leader
As mentioned above, these people work hard. If you are in this phase on your journey, you are committed to producing great results. You have probably gotten a job that utilizes your skills and education. You are not necessarily entry level but you are not yet leading a team. You often feel the rush of a job well done and other people come to you when they need help solving problems or navigating something new. Sometimes you work overtime and you are constantly looking for ways to stay on top of trends and new education about your area of expertise. You probably enjoy coming to work and feel like you are working hard to contribute to the company in a meaningful way. Your work is important and necessary to the success of the company.
When in this phase, you have two options:
1- Continue to be an Outstanding Individual Contributor
2 – Close the gap and become an Emerging Leader
One day, you might see someone doing work that you want to do and feel inspired. Maybe you overhear a conversation between them and a peer and see the shift in how the other person viewed their work. Or it could be that you feel you are capped out in your current position and start to feel you want more; more impact, more money, more… something. If you start to see that you are not where you want to be, it is time to figure out why; it is time to close the gap.
- Step one – Ask for help: Find someone who is doing the type of work you want to be doing or who has the job you want and ask them about it. What does a day in the life look like? How did they get there? What shifts did they have to make in themselves to show up powerfully in that role? What kind of person do they have to be for others to be successful in that role?
- Step two – Start doing hard work on yourself: Question why you are the way you are. Do you have any habits or set ways of being that are getting in your way? Do you have a short temper that is just “how you are”? Maybe you are a slave to your moods and feelings. These are areas you need to get really clear on. Ask your friends and family how you occur for them. Ask them what they can always count on you for and what they can never count on you for. Ask them what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. When doing this, create a safe space and assure them that you are exploring this for your own growth and you genuinely need the feedback to take the next step in your life.
- Step three – Work on a new being state: Once you understand where you want to go and have feedback from people in your life, you need to work on the actual changes. What got you here will not get you there so if you got feedback that you are always late, you need to start being early to everything. If people feel they can’t talk to you about hard topics, figure out why and start improving your listening skills.
- Step four – Pay attention to how others experience you: Do people start opening up to you more and trusting your reactions now that you have done the hard internal work? Is there more peace when you are in a group of people? People judge themselves by their intentions, and others judge them by their actions. You cannot rely only on what you think you are doing. Instead you must look at how your actions are landing on others. If there is no change in how others are experiencing you, you haven’t actually closed the gap. But if there is a change, you are ready for phase two.
At this phase in your discovery, you have mastered the art of working hard. Most commonly known as a manager, you know your tasks and have begun the inner work to show up powerfully in your life. Not only do you know your tasks, but you have started creating a strategy for the future of the team or company. You probably have a team of people you are responsible for leading. These people come to you for work problems and sometimes life problems. You are beginning the hard work of shifting your listening and having deep and meaningful conversations. Things are really moving forward in your department or team; goals are being set and met, morale is up, productivity is up. Other people are starting to notice, and they are curious about how you are doing it. You are now the person the outstanding individual contributors are coming to for guidance.
When in this phase, you have two options:
1- Continue to be an Emerging Leader
2 – Close the gap and become an Inspirational Leader
At some point, you may have faced a situation you did not know how to handle. Maybe there was a conversation that ended poorly, or you had a breakdown on your team. You might feel like you are not connecting with the people you are leading in a meaningful way. It is in these moments you realize you don’t currently have the skills and tools to lead in an inspirational way. It is time again to close the gap.
- Step one – Find a coach: Similar to step one in Phase one, you need to find someone who is doing work you want to be doing and pick their brain. Find someone who is really making a difference in the lives of those around them, someone who you and others see as powerful and inspirational, and then be courageous enough to share. Tell them what you see from them and express your genuine desire to learn from them. If this person is in your current social circle, talk to them in person. If they are not, find a mutual connection (LinkedIn is a great place to start) and ask for an introduction. I promise the people who are doing these types of things in their lives are happy to connect with someone else who is interested in a similar path.
- Step two – Learn and practice: Once you have a coach to work with, a deeper level of learning needs to happen. This is truly the start of hard work or, said another way, heart work. The difference between phase two and phase three is a relentless love for other humans. You started to look at yourself and why you are the way you are to become an Emerging Leader; now it is time to look at others and appreciate who they are and how they got to be the way they are. This will take practice. You will not be a master immediately. Start with your closest friends. Share with them what you are doing so they know you will be practicing new skills. Ask hard questions during conversations. If a friend is complaining about their marriage or another family member, ask them what responsibility they are taking for the breakdown. Dance in the conversation with them as they explore.
- Step three – Let go of looking good: This can be a difficult step to take because humans naturally want to look good so people will like them. They are afraid that if they look bad, they will not be liked. But to become an inspirational leader, you must be willing to make mistakes — and clean them up — because it will happen at some point. As you practice, you may try something that doesn’t go over well or leaves someone else feeling bad. You may also give your word about something that you are not able to keep. These types of situations call for a clean up, and cleaning it up means swallowing your pride. Pride doesn’t exist in the next phase. Simply acknowledge the impact you had and commit to a new path going forward. You must also be willing to ruffle some feathers because the people you are leading don’t know what they don’t know and it will be uncomfortable for them to confront certain things as you coach and mentor them; they may not always like you for that.
- Step four – Improve your listening: Stop listening for yourself and start listening for others. When you listen for yourself, you are only hearing what you want to hear and not truly connecting with the speaker. Pay attention to the whole human — watch their body language, ask why, clarify intentionally vague statements, don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer. This might make people uncomfortable at first, but it will serve everyone in the long run. You will begin to really get to the heart of the matter, and the humans, when you practice this kind of listening.
- Step five – Disappear yourself: Just as pride has no place in phase three, neither do ego or moods and feelings that don’t move the action forward. An important distinction to make when closing the gap from phase two to phase three is that you cannot show up as an inspirational leader if you are showing up for yourself only and not for others. As your listening improves, you will be thinking less about your own opinions and more about what is going on for the other person. But sometimes those opinions and reactions and feelings will still show up. When they do, notice if they are moving things forward (someone is growing, something is being created, etc), or if they are stopping progress (dumping complaints, making someone wrong, etc). If what is showing up is stalling the situation or growth, reflect on where those feelings are coming from and how you can take responsibility. For example, if you are working on a project and have a different opinion on how to execute, ask yourself if it is because you truly think that is the best way to do it or because you want to prove something. Once you have mastered control and awareness over your pride, ego, moods, and feelings, you are ready for phase three.
When you reach this point in your journey, working hard is your default state. You complete tasks, set vision, and deliver results without even thinking. You have also done internal work to get complete with yourself, and you are showing up powerfully in your life. Others see you as a true leader and look to you for guidance. This is the phase when you are really making a difference in other people’s lives. You are someone who is operating in complete integrity — you say what you do and you do what you say. You honor your word, and no one questions your motives or intentions. Because of your openness and hard work, you are in a position to influence others to follow the same journey you have been on. In fact, you love helping others become inspirational leaders. Your sense of purpose is no longer tied to what you can accomplish and become but instead to what others are accomplishing and becoming.
This phase is all hard work all the time. And sometimes the hard work in this phase looks like pissing people off because you don’t mind giving people tough love if that’s what is needed to rearrange their souls (to rearrange a soul means to get to the heart of a matter during meaningful conversations in a way that leads to breakthroughs and new ways of being). Those people you are inspiring are not always going to want it for themselves the way you want it for them, but here is when you need to be the strongest stand for them.
There is only one option to move forward in this phase – Continue to learn, grow, and contribute. There is no going back once you are in this phase. You will not want to or allow yourself to go back to just producing results as an individual contributor.
Step one (and only) – Climb the mountain with no top: Once you occur for yourself and others as an Inspirational Leader, you keep going. Every morning, reflect on your being state and every evening reflect on what you created that day. (Read more about my morning and evening rituals here.) Teach others to work hard and do the hard work, make space for creation, and accept yourself and others as a possibility.
There is a progression in this journey: phase one is all working hard. Phase two requires continuing to work hard while also learning about and practicing hard work. Phase three is all about working hard on the hard work. You cannot become an Inspirational Leader without a background of hard work and heart work. Each of our founders, as well as every leader in our company is on this journey. There are different people in different phases, but each of us is committed to closing any gap necessary to be an Inspirational Leader. The impact of having hundreds of people across the globe on the same leadership journey is monumental in moving the needle for our company. Not only does it allow every team member to be fully self-expressed and inspired, it enriches relationships with partners and the communities. Our employees are committed to creating abundance and our partners want to be a part of that.
As you embark on your own journey, remember it is constant and never-ending work so don’t get discouraged. Reach out to other Inspirational Leaders, grow your network of powerful humans, recommit to your purpose and possibilities. Every human has the potential to become an Inspirational Leader; it is just a matter of willingness and openness. If you are willing, if you are open, and if you are constantly learning and growing, you have the ability and power to make the world a better place to live by enabling and empowering other human beings.