“Until you ‘figure out what success means’ to you personally and to your organisation, leadership is an almost ‘pointless conversation’, Drucker Admonished, Success Built to Last
Effective leadership requires a clear definition of success. Every morning you’re faced with a myriad of things to get done, all competing for your attention. When you have a ton of things on your “to do” list and you lack a clear definition of success you quickly lose focus, become reactive and leadership fails.
Getting clear on your definition of success is critical for successful leadership. You cannot lead unless you know where you’re going.
“Leaders must know where they are going if they expect others to willingly join them on the journey.” – Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge
Without a clear focus, our to do lists overwhelm us, creating a passive response to life and a knee-jerk reaction to everyday events.
What is Success?
What exactly do we mean by success? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as:
”the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame, the correct or desired result of an attempt, someone or something that is successful : a person or thing that succeeds”
This definition describes success as the attainment of wealth, respect or fame. Looking around it’s not difficult to see that this definition of success is widely accepted and lived by society. However, it’s an extremely narrow definition of success.
So, does success equal money, fame and respect? Whilst there are many who seek fame and riches, history has shown that those who seek wealth or fame usually end up unfulfilled, empty and unhappy. If there is something to be learnt from defining success as money, fame and respect, is that it’s a path to misery.
Success is more than how much money you have, how famous or respected you are. In fact, a team of researchers at Strayer University think this definition of success is total rubbish, and are petitioning Merriam-Webster to have the definition changed. This team has proposed a new definition for success. One that is focused on relationships and the achievement of personal goals.
Whilst we may intellectually understand that money and fame do not make for success, we often find ourselves behaving just the opposite. We make decisions and take actions guided by money, fame and respect. We still live our lives like this definition of success is the only one that matters. We have been conned into living a definition of success that has more to do with living a lifestyle of the rich and famous, than with living a fulfilling life.
As humans it’s our a habit to compare ourselves with others. We look to others and measure ourselves by what we find. The result is how we dress, our careers, our social circle, and our status are all a reflection of society’s expectations.
“Wealth, notoriety, place, and power are no measures of success whatsoever. The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have been and what we have become.” – H. G. Wells
If you don’t have your own definition of success you’ll find yourself playing by someone else’s rules. And when you live by someone else’s rules, you end up living a life of regret, a life that’s unfulfilled, and a life that lacks meaning.
Rethinking Your Definition of Success
Successful leaders measure themselves differently. They navigate by an internal definition of success.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” – Thomas Merton
We’re all climbing some kind of ladder. Everyone is on some ladder, leaning against some wall. The question then, “Is your ladder leaning against the right wall?”
If you fail to examine the kind of wall your ladder is leaning against you may be disappointed once you get to the top!
It’s far better to be at the bottom of a ladder leaning against the right wall. Than at the top of a ladder leaning against the wrong wall. So, let’s then explore how to create a definition of success that ensures your ladder is leaning against the right wall.
Bessie Stanley’s Definition of Success
When it comes to success who’s voice are you listening to? Are you busy chasing someone else’s definition or are you chasing your own? Let’s consider the following definition of success by Bessie A. Stanley, the winner of a 1905 competition for the best essay on the subject “What Constitutes Success?”
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;
who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had;
whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.” – Bessie A. Stanley
This is just one possible definition of success. It may not be your definition, but it provides a great source of inspiration. Can you write down your own definition of success just like Bessie?
Your challenge is to define what success really means for you.
“Have you defined what success means for you and for your life? Unless you have thought through the answer to that question, you are at risk of letting others define success for you or trying to keep up with their definitions of success. Only when you can define what is most important in your life can you set the right priorities for your life and become an integrated leader” – Bill George with Peter Sims, True North
Start by recognising that you have inherited a flawed definition of success. This means you need to put in the hard work to figure out what success means for you personally.
”The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” – Mark Caine
To create your own definition of success, set aside 20 minutes, then take out a piece of paper and write down your answers to the following questions:
- Think about your death and your legacy. What do you want to be known for? What do you want your life to have been about? What are you trying to do with your life?
- Think about your purpose. How do you want to contribute to the world? What change do you want to see in others?
- Think about the vision for your life. What do you want to accomplish in each area of your life? What will success look like when you have it?
- Think about your core values and beliefs. What are your 3 – 5 core values? What would it look like to live your life in accordance with these core values?
- Think about your body of work. What do you want your body of work to look like in 5 – 10 years time? What problems do you solve?
- Think about your habits. What are the daily habits that reflect your definition of success? What must you stop or start doing to achieve your definition of success?
You may not be able to answer all these questions at once. In fact you will probably find it difficult to answer these questions in one go. Instead work on creating a definition over the next few weeks. Don’t aim for perfection. It’s more important to get a first draft completed than trying to make it perfect. You can then refine it over time.
”Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will at least be a little bit different for our having passed through it” – Harold Kushner