This summer, we’re going to focus on self-leadership. Like leadership, self-leadership is an influence process, but in the case of self-leadership, you’re leading yourself rather than others. Self-leadership is about taking control of your life, of becoming the sort of person you’d like to be. Although it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, most of us have significant control over our own lives. The goal of self-leadership is to exercise that control in a purposeful, effective way. Learning how to lead yourself leads to numerous benefits to your personal and professional life. Some of these, such as better health, increased optimism, a sense of empowerment and lower stress, stem from the increased sense of control that self-leadership can provide. Effective self-leadership can also result in greater career success and satisfaction. The ability to lead yourself rests on a foundation of four core practices — purposefulness, mindfulness, reflection and practice. (Yes, I know it sounds funny to call practice a practice. Stay with me; you’ll see what I mean.) I call these the four pillars of self-leadership. This month, we’ll talk about purposefulness.
Purposefulness is living your life with some larger meaning in mind. (My personal purpose is to help others live successful, meaningful lives.) Purposefulness is important for several reasons. First, it provides you with a way to stay on track with your life. Imagine that you start off a trip without any idea of where you’re going or why you’re in the car. This is how many of us live our lives. We drift around without any real direction. Having a purpose gives you that direction, which is a tremendous help when making important decisions. Not only does the purpose give you a yardstick against which to measure alternatives, your purpose also gives you confidence when making key decisions. For example, when I decided to accept the offer to become dean of the Franke College of Business, I was confident that it was the correct decision. Being dean gives me the opportunity to help more people than my previous job, so accepting the job helps be better achieve my purpose.
Living purposefully also makes you resilient. Knowing and keeping your purpose in mind lets you deal with life’s inevitable uncertainties and setbacks. As holocaust survivor Vicktor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” On any journey there are many paths to the destination. The same is the case for achieving your purpose. For example, when the day comes that I am no longer dean, I am confident that I can pursue my purpose through some other role. This thinking gives me a feeling of great control over my life. As much as I love being dean, it’s not my purpose in life; it’s what I do, not why I do it. My purpose in life is to help others live successful, meaningful lives. There are many ways I can pursue this purpose. If I can’t do it one way, I’ll do it another. This feeling of control is tremendously liberating, but it all begins with understanding my life’s purpose.
Living purposefully orients you toward the future, not the past. It helps you focus on what can be rather than what has been. You view setbacks and failures as temporary events that help you learn rather than as a permanent state of affairs. A future orientation also enhances your willingness to delay gratification. You’re willing to invest today for tomorrow’s big payoff (in terms of your purpose).
Your purpose is like the horizon; you can move towards it but never really fully achieve it. On the surface, this might seem like a drawback, but it’s not. Goals are great to have, but they’re only markers on a larger journey. Achieving a significant goal sometimes brings about depression rather than elation. Distance runners call this “post-marathon blues.” After months of preparation, you run the race, and then it’s over. The depression comes from a perceived void in your life, a sense of “Now what?” Because you can always move towards your purpose, every goal you achieve leads to another goal. You avoid the void.
Finding your purpose isn’t easy or quick. It’s a lifelong pursuit that requires experience coupled with deep reflection. I was well north of 40 years old before I started to really understand my purpose. Even then it started out as a vague notion; it took many years of reflection before I deeply understood why I’m on this earth. However, you can experience the benefits of purposefulness all along the journey of truly understanding that purpose. Give serious thought to your purpose. Think about what makes you happy, what gives you a sense of accomplishment, what makes you feel fulfilled. Reflect on these and, over time, you’ll come to understand your purpose and you’ll gain a feeling of control and satisfaction that few experience.
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
I’m honored to lead Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,400 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.