Michael Jackson’s pop song “Man in the Mirror” suggests that for change to take place it must start with you: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways, and no message could have been any clearer, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
Sometimes it seems we forget about our role in impacting change around us. If we’re part of a bureaucratic organization, we throw up our hands and assume “nothing can be done here.” Or if our own boss is not a particularly good leader we say, “There’s nothing I can do — look at the boss I have.” Or, we wait for the human resources department to tell us what we can do as leaders to more effectively work with others. Yet, do we really need to wait? What if we take that first step to improve the lives of those around us?
Many of us feel that if the managers above us are not stellar leaders then we are blocked by what we can do. There may be some truth to this if we are trying to create new recognition programs or performance management systems. And yet there are still so many things we can do. We have to remember that we are the ones who directly impact those reporting to us.
In their book, “A Leader’s Legacy,” Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write that the “legacy you leave is the life you lead each and every day.” Instead of waiting for a chance to do something big at the end of our lives, we have to remember that each day we have numerous opportunities to make a difference — by coaching others, listening to them, thanking them, assisting them, being positive with them … and the list goes on. The authors write, “whatever your role in life may be, you can make a difference. There is a 100 percent chance that you can be a role model for leadership, and a 100 percent chance you can influence someone else’s performance, and a 100 percent chance that you will make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Recently I had the pleasure of working with an outstanding cohort of senior leaders from Lockheed Martin. They took that message of “it starts with me” to heart. As we talked about the importance of connecting with employees, each night they looked for opportunities to seek out other managers and employees to talk with and strengthen relationships. Further, they took the initiative to organize a dinner where they could interact with new managers from around the corporation. Just taking the time to meet with the new managers and get to know them had such a positive impact — a simple thing, but one that made a difference in building stronger relationships among various levels of managers at the firm.
What can you do to be the person in the mirror who changes? You first have to recognize that others are observing what you do. You have to realize (as Kouzes and Posner say) that all the small actions you take each day add up to create your legacy as a leader. Look at each day as a new opportunity to positively impact and inspire those around you by listening to them, asking for their input, supporting their efforts, sharing a hopeful vision for the future, and recognizing their contributions. And most importantly, remember that it just takes one person to make a difference.
History is filled with stories of how one person made a difference in the lives of others. Isn’t it time that person was you? Take the first step today to creating your leadership legacy.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.