The Inside Job of Leadership


I’m a reader, and occasionally I read a book whose truth resonates so deeply with me — with nuggets of insight so profound — that I return to it time and again. One such book is Let Your Life Speak, Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker Palmer. It is a small book, barely over 100 pages. Mine is now yellowed from age and use, with colorful flags waiving at me each time I pick it up. (It pains me to mark in books, so I flag passages I want to return to with self-stick tabs.)

This book reminds me that, while leadership skills are important and something we need to continue to develop, skills only scratch the surface of what it takes to be a great leader. Assuming that leadership is your vocation (or it could be teaching, or theater, or horses), consider some of Palmer’s thoughts on the topic. “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.” . . . “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” And taking the concept a step further, “True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’” .

Throughout the book, Palmer seems to capture concepts that ring true but are a challenge to articulate, such as “Vocation at it’s deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”  Truly, have you ever tried to explain to someone exactly why you feel compelled to take on, often thankless, leadership responsibilities that frequently leave you to make decisions between a rock and the hard place? No matter how many people caution about the challenging years ahead and the volatile environment you work in, you still feel that inner push that this is what you are supposed to do. Yes, it takes mastery of leadership skills to be successful, but without that inner push, that drive to go beyond what is reasonable to reach what is possible, it is unlikely you will be able to lead your organization to reach it’s full potential.

Finding, and feeding, your vocation is an inside job. You have to listen, and yes sometimes argue and wrestle, with the inner voice leading you down a path that, on the surface and to others, may seem a bit misguided. In fact, learning to listen to, and trust, that inner voice, may be the most important leadership skill of all.

One final thought from Mr. Palmer, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, and what values you represent.”

It’s all there inside you. All you have to do is let your life speak.

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