Why You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
You can’t reach your goals if you feel burned out. Stress drains you mentally and physically and often blinds you to what opportunities are out there for you -- all because you’re too busy trying to keep up. This is something that Sarah Kaler has experienced firsthand.
While Kaler was rising in the ranks during the course of her eight years at Lululemon, she was also dealing with grand mal seizures she says were caused by exhaustion that made hospital and doctor’s visits a regular part of her life.
After years of feeling like she was running behind, she knew she had to make a change. No longer willing to stay in a corporate lane that didn’t serve her, she decided to launch SoulPowered, a leadership development and coaching company dedicated to helping business leaders find their purpose, make an impact and not sacrifice their well-being on their way to the top.
Three years after its launch, Kaler and her co-founder Brenda Wilkins lead an all-female team, with Kaler working from Seattle and Wilkins from Missoula, Mont. The pair have have consulted companies such as Accenture, Boeing, Box, Cisco, Facebook and Intel.
Kaler and Wilkins shared their insights about what people don't realize about leadership and how to move forward after a setback.
What is a piece of advice a mentor gave you that you still use with people you mentor today?
Kaler: As a young, driven business leader, hard-wired for success, I sat down with my executive coach and mentor to talk about my future and my very well crafted vision and goals. After a long-winded ramble about my ambitious goals, my mentor said to me, "What if all that mattered is your contribution?"
That conversation changed how I work. She taught me to lead through contribution and to lead every day not from past achievements, but to approach every day as if it was a clean slate with an opportunity to bring my whole self and new contribution to it. It completely shifted how I developed myself, leaders, teams and business.
What do you think is a misconception people have about leadership?
Wilkins: When I was inexperienced, I saw business success and failure as an individual measure of competence and hard work. I came to understand business success and failure, however anyone defines it, as a combination of factors -- some within an entrepreneur's control and others not. I know my responsibility as an entrepreneur and leader is being clear and continuously communicating vision, executing on the work, holding the heart of the team and culture, and loving and serving my team and customers. And, in all honesty, I no longer think much of success and failure. I think about learning, leading, loving and legacy, about collaboration and community, about making money to make impact -- for myself and everyone.
I used to think of leadership as being bound within organizations with formal roles that ensure authority plus leadership opportunity and responsibility. I no longer think of leadership as being related to organizations. I now understand leadership is a social process of engagement, influence and impact that occurs in any environment when a leader emerges. Leadership is about compelling people to commit to a vision and forwarding that vision through relentless action and drive towards outcome. Leaders influence and impact with or without a title or authority. And a good leader leads for good.
How has your view of success and failure changed over time?
Kaler: As a young business leader, I had turned up the sound of "success" so loud I couldn’t hear the strain it was having on my life, until I found myself in a full-blown health crisis. That "success" was driven by numbers, metrics, titles and a bottom line that did not sleep. My family and close friends loudly begged me to rest. My inner circle at work became increasingly more concerned and worried. Some people tipped-toed around me as if I was a time bomb waiting to go off. But I couldn’t hear any of them at the time, I only knew success one way. I only knew myself as a leader one way. I only knew how to live life one way. I would not give up. I would not fail. I was winning and I had the results -- so I thought.
Until the day I woke up to the truth: that my life wasn’t working, nor was my system. I awoke to the fact that by leading from my head and from the context of how I thought things are "supposed to be," from proving I can produce results vs. tuning into my body and listening to what’s really needed, I was operating on a shaky and inauthentic foundation.
The cost of my "looking good" success system was big in my case. It affected my health immensely, my family, my relationships and my team. Striving for perfection is often a way of hiding behind competency. It’s a false-sense of safety. Behind the false-sense of safety is fear of failure or not being enough. The fear is that failure or breakdown equates to a dead end instead of accepting the gift that failure brings -- which is exponential growth. If we continue to operate from fear of failure and lead from "shoulds" and the energy of proving, it’s a road headed straight for burnout and disengagement for ourselves and the people we impact directly.
Leadership isn’t just a model, a system or a program you can roll out and cross off the list. There is more to a human being’s life than competencies, behaviors, models or theories. At its greatest, leadership is a lifestyle, it’s a way of being in the world. It requires a commitment to evolve and to be whole. Fundamentally, leadership is about service. And service requires being in touch with all the impacts of our way of being.
What advice do you have for someone who is picking themselves up after a setback? How should they look for opportunity in that moment?
Kaler: The setback is the opportunity. Having that mindset is the fuel that fires the next opportunity. Mindset is always a choice.
Wilkins: [Being indestructible means] embracing every opportunity and obstacle, rising to every challenge, getting wiser and stronger every time. It is the refusal to be dragged under by a riptide of stress and self-doubt. An indestructible leader rises in the face of opportunity and obstacles, bringing a full heart and mind to every interaction, relationship and goal. Being indestructible goes far beyond resilience to a level of strength where the tests of obstacles and opportunities are embraced. A resilient leader weathers the storm. An indestructible leader changes the climate.