Make Up Your Mindset: The heart of purposeful leadership

By Tom Davidson

“Dad, what do you do?”

This was the question that Stafford County Administrator Anthony Romanello was asked by his son, a high school senior at the time, and one that would ultimately enlighten and inspire his own father, a veteran executive and respected civic leader.

“I’m responsible for day-to-day operations of Stafford County, Virginia, government for the board of supervisors and for its residents…. You might say I’m there to deliver on democracy,” he told his son. Unsettled by his irritation with the question and his boilerplate response, Anthony settled in to discover the real answer.

“After 30 days,” he wrote in Public Management magazine, “the answer to John’s question was six pages long, single spaced, 12-point font.” According to Anthony, he let it marinate for a few days, and the epiphany arrived.

“I discovered that I’m less like a County Administrator and more like a farmer,” he explained. “Seeds sown. Ground cultivated. The harvest comes in its own time. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’”

The full story of “John’s Question” appears in the September 2015 issue of Public Management magazine.

John’s question was powerful, not just for his father but for all of us. Great questions like John’s are one thing; doing the hard work of answering them is another matter.

  • As a leader, do you put in your time, or make your time matter?
  • As a manager, do you get things done, or make things happen?
  • As a supervisor, do you tell people what to do, or earn their effort?

How to Find Your Purpose
Why go to this much trouble to discover what you do? Isn’t it enough that you keep your organization out of trouble, keep your boss happy, bring home a paycheck, and get everyone home safely at the end of each day?

No. Not if you want to:

  • Leave the legacy and impact that you’re truly capable of.
  • Make better decisions and effective career choices.
  • Cope with chaos with calm and clear priorities.
  • Maintain a big-picture, long-term perspective when surrounded by weeds.
  • Have more energy for the work and have more fun.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”.

– Mark Twain

What you can do to discover your purpose
While it may be tempting to adopt Anthony’s answer to John’s question as your answer, you’ll be missing the experience and the meaning for yourself.

Here are three things to do with a common theme – archaeology – the painstaking process of looking for bits and pieces of data and then putting them together in the right pattern. Because it can be difficult to see your own data, you may wish to get the help of a qualified coach or mentor.

1. Look at what you are already doing.

  1. Write down everything you do for 30 days. Put it in any form you like, but include everything, without filters or judgment.
  2. At the end of 30 days, reorganize the data into a mind map that groups your activities by purpose, impact, and value to others
  3. What is the meta-purpose shown in your current activities?

2. Look at what you want to do.

Try visualization exercises like the one below that illuminate clues as to your unique purpose. Many more can be found on line or through coaches.

    1. Close your eyes. Envision yourself as running a scanner machine like those at the airport, but yours is magic and represents your impact on them. As people move through your scanner, envision how they change.

What impact are you having on people as you envision people experiencing your leadership?

3. Look at what you have done.

  1. In this exercise, your objective is to catalog the most significant accomplishments in your life thus far, “significant” in terms of how you think of their unique meaning and impact on others.
  2. Have someone ask you for specific stories in answer to questions like these and help you listen to your answers. What are you most proud of? What has really made a difference? What kind of difference have you made? What have been the most productive times in your life?
  3. With enough stories and events of this kind, what patterns emerge from your past that indicate the purpose you’ve already been on but have not yet realized?

As Mark Twain pointed out, finding out why you were born (i.e., what you’re here to do, what your unique purpose is, what’s your personal mission) may be the most important discovery of your life and career.

Without it, you are just marking time; with it, you are making your time count. It’s the nature of living your purpose, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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