By Brett Elmgren, CPHR, Axom Leadership, Inc.
For the past decade, I have worked internally with leaders from some of Saskatchewan’s largest organizations and engaged in countless discussions on the topic of leadership. Each conversation has been fulfilling and unique and left me increasingly curious about how we can continue to develop our collective leadership capability. Yet, despite all the unique perspectives, several common themes have emerged that have shaped my core beliefs about leadership. These beliefs guide my messaging in my new role as an HR consultant and leadership speaker and reflect the contributions of the amazing leaders I have had the benefit of connecting with over my career.
1. Leadership is about personal empowerment
There are thousands of definitions of leadership, and I have spent far too much time (and drank far too many cups of coffee) seeking the perfect definition. At one point I had the hubris of thinking I could create my own, before giving up entirely on the task and simply focusing on the actions and behaviours of leaders that have inspired me the most. And upon that reflection, what become clear is that the most impactful leaders I have encountered lead from a place of personal empowerment.
My favourite definition of empowerment comes from Bob Anderson, founder and CEO of the Leadership Circle. He simply defines empowerment as “learning how to create what matters most in our life through our work.” What I appreciate most about this definition is that it encourages me to embrace the perspective that it is our responsibility to create what matters in our lives. So often I find leaders thrown off centre and feeling victim to external circumstances. Running from one fire to another, exhausted and joyless. Yet, our rational selves understand that the only thing we can truly control is our own actions and choices. The best leaders find the resiliency and strength, regardless of their circumstance, to regain control over their capacity to bring a desired future to life.
2. Culture change doesn’t have to be complicated
If you work for an organization for any reasonable length of time, you inevitably will have experienced some kind of “cultural transformation” effort by the organization. Perhaps it was the unveiling of new corporate values, a new leadership competency model or maybe a shift in organizational strategy. At the heart of these efforts is a change management strategy (or, in many cases, an absence of one), which is focused on changing the culture of the organization. And in almost every case, these culture change efforts fail.
Why do culture change efforts often fail? Through my discussions with leaders, I would argue that we make culture change out to be far more complicated than it needs to be. The most commonly quoted definition of culture is simply, “The way we do things around here.” Culture is the collective actions and behaviours of the people within it. In theory, if we want to change the culture, it starts by changing ourselves.
The problem is that we often focus on factors outside of our control, such as other people’s behaviour, judgements on executive leadership decisions, or generally anything that absolves us of the responsibility to take ownership over our own contributions to the culture. Coming back to the first point on empowerment, leadership is all about taking responsibility for how our actions and behaviours influence our outcomes. To this day, I have yet to meet an influential leader who didn’t take full responsibility for how their actions and behaviours contribute to the current state of an organization’s culture. Ultimately, our actions and behaviours are the only things we can control. Take ownership and accountability over your actions and behaviours, and just watch as the organization begins to shift around you. It is truly a powerful thing.
3. It all comes down to values
We seem to be living in the age of authenticity, with countless amounts of new content emerging on the topic. Authenticity seems to be the emerging leadership development topic trend, based on a positive shift to improve cultures of inclusivity, psychological safety and personal belonging. However, I seldom see practical guidance on how people can develop the ability to show up more authentically in their work environments. To me, this is where personal values come in.
At the heart of my purpose is helping people gain clarity over their personal values, which results in people gaining a sense of empowerment over their lives. I am a big believer in personal values, as I see them as our personal criteria which guides our actions and decisions. Consider your personal values your blueprint for authenticity. Yet, most people haven’t taken the time or haven’t known how to gain clarity over their personal values. When our values aren’t clear, we are vulnerable to being thrown off centre by external forces outside our control. It might be production demands, a toxic co-worker, an overly demanding boss or any number of factors. The reality is that there will always be things pressuring us to show up incongruent to our values, and if we haven’t taken the time to clearly identify who we are at our best, we can easily show up inauthentic to who we truly are. Therefore, if you want to be more authentic, start by defining your values.
I also believe organizations can, and should, play a meaningful role in facilitating processes for people to gain clarity over their personal values. The best organizations reverse the trend of attempting to assimilate people to a set of generic organizational values. Instead, they facilitate a process for people to identify their personal values first and then connect them to the collective values of the organization. In doing so, organizations demonstrate a deep respect for the individuality of each unique person, while aligning collectively on a shared purpose.
Think about the best leaders you know – the ones who have made an immeasurable impact on your life. I am willing to bet at the heart of their leadership is a strong sense of personal empowerment, responsibility over their behaviours and clear personal values guiding their actions. These are just a few of the lessons I have been grateful to learn from the amazing leaders across the province of Saskatchewan that continue to guide how I show up in support of others.
Brett Elmgren, CPHR is the president of Axom Leadership Inc. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally printed in the Fall/Winter 2021 edition of HR Saskatchewan magazine, published by the Chartered Professionals of Human Resources (CPHR) Saskatchewan. It is reprinted with permission.