On the Need to be Useful

The usefulness of the cup is in its emptiness – Bruce Lee

Arnold Schwarzenegger has just released a book called ‘Be Useful’. I like the sentiment. I think we all want to be useful. Yet sometimes our intent doesn’t match our impact.

This past week, I’ve noticed a common theme running through a number of workshops and coaching sessions with senior leaders. They’re all working on learning to shut up and allow others to take the lead. As one said, I’m learning to ‘sit uncomfortably in the silence’. Without exception, they’re finding it really hard!

I think what’s behind the ‘hard’ is a tension around what being useful means. 

One way of being useful is to be the ‘hero’ leader: decision-maker, direction setter, expert / guru.

Another way of being useful is to be the ‘host’ leader: the one who creates the conditions to empower others, build commitment, and keep learning and improving.

The thing is, it’s easy to feel useful when you’re the hero. People look to you, you impart some profound wisdom, and there you go. Job done.

But what is the job, really?

I think a leader’s job has a couple of dimensions. There’s the outer work, and the inner work.

The outer work is to blend delivery with discovery. Getting results and growing people. You do this by creating an environment where people take ownership of the work themselves, and in the process they discover what they’re capable of, as well as potentially discovering better ways of doing it.

The inner work is to shift from an ego-centric mindset to an eco-centric mindset. An ego-centric mindset happens when you’re too driven by your own needs. Maybe you’re driven to prove you’re amazing. Maybe you need to exert control over what happens. Maybe it’s about the need to be liked. These are all things that make us human, yet when they take over, they can severely limit us.

An eco-centric mindset shifts the focus away from you and towards the ecosystem you serve. Your definition of your ecosystem depends on your perspective. It might be your team, your organisations, your industry, your planet. Whatever it is, when you have this mindset, you're focused on the health of the whole (which happens to include you, by the way).

And to focus on the ecosystem means being willing to listen more and to speak less; to look for the patterns at play; to know when to intervene, and when to let things run.

Which brings us back to being useful. In the long run, what does being useful really mean? How might you answer that?

I’ll leave you this quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'

For more posts like this, check out:

Create the Conditions

Intent Determines Impact

Busy Does Not Equal Valuable

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