I was in a yoga class recently trying to breathe through a convoluted, bound twist when my teacher, Margi Young, spoke: “Remember,” she said calmly. “Yoga is about the practice, not the posture.” My breathing deepened.
Her reminder enlivened me, not just in that moment, but in the weeks since. As someone obsessed with purposeful leadership—what it is, how we develop it, why there’s so little of it in today’s world—I can’t help but connect her lesson to a related concept: Leadership, too, is a practice, not a position.
Our culture is hardwired to conflate titles, money, and power with leadership. We venerate the unicorn founders and billionaires, holding them on a pedestal as exemplars of success, celebrating the “what” of their accomplishment (revenues, market share, net worth), but rarely asking questions that probe into the “how” or the “who”—unless they fall spectacularly from grace.
By rewarding and celebrating financial wins, we generally ignore the cost of these achievements on things like our well-being or the health of our planet. In the context of unprecedented prosperity, inequality is growing. In the context of unprecedented technological advances, we’re destroying our environment. In the context of our connected world, we are failing to solve the global challenges that threaten our planet and future.
Overcoming these challenges requires a new brand of leaders: people who see the whole picture, who work effectively across lines of difference, and who are committed to more than outmaneuvering the competition for financial gain. As management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”
In my decades as an educator and social entrepreneur, I’ve come to see three traits—curiosity, conviction, and courage—as the foundation for effective leadership. At Global Citizen Year, the nonprofit I launched and lead, these concepts inform our training and the behaviors that we believe are the hallmark “operating system” of any successful leader. When we disassociate leadership from formal positions that confer power, suddenly any of us with a desire to inspire others toward a common goal realize that we, too, can exert influence from wherever we stand. What does it look like? Start by asking yourself these questions:
Who—or what—can help me develop my skills?
Strong leaders are not just insatiably curious; they are clear about what questions they are trying to answer at any point in time. Questions, unlike goals, with their hard edges and expectations, require humility and an openness to letting go of what we think we know to make space for what we’re meant to learn next. Knowing and naming our questions ensures that we’re always in the drivers’ seat of our own learning.
Being a continuous learner requires that we know who we want to learn from as well. Teachers take many forms; they may be living or dead, old or young, traditionally “successful” or not. Our teachers will change over time, but here’s what I’ve learned about finding them: Follow the tug toward people whose wisdom and clarity awaken our sense of possibility, and who help us become our best selves.
What do I feel strongly enough about to commit myself to completely?
The best leaders find their thing and commit to it wholeheartedly. We put far too much pressure on young people to “find their passion”—a lofty and vague notion that’s overwhelming and paralyzing in equal measure. What if, instead, we encouraged them to find the thing that breaks their heart and move toward it? Whether it’s outrage over racial injustice, our failing public schools, or people dying from diseases we know how to cure, find the thing that touches you deeply—the thing you can’t not do something about—and use it as your guide.
Conviction requires commitment. And the irony of that commitment (whether to oneself, a partner, a faith, or a cause) is that it’s deeply liberating. In my own experience, the key to maintaining a commitment is remembering that what I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while. Whether it’s beginning each day with a clear intention, unplugging on Saturdays, or starting the new year with a letter to my future self, we all need rituals that keep us on track toward our broader goals. Because if we can’t hold ourselves accountable, no one can.
How can I get out of my comfort zone?
It’s all too easy to get stuck being comfortable. The problem is, we don’t grow when we’re comfortable; we grow when we’re stretched. Risk-taking is like a muscle, and the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
In my experience, travel is the single most powerful way to shake me from what’s habitual and to dislodge my views about the world and my place in it. Being immersed in a foreign context without distractions and familiar markers forces me to grapple with bigger questions of my values and identity.
But travel doesn’t require jumping on an airplane. Often, we don’t have to go far to find ourselves in new territory. By immersing ourselves in a different neighborhood, or deliberately doing something we’re not good at (learning a language, painting, pausing before speaking), we learn about discomfort—and how to find our way through it. Because here’s the trick with discomfort: If we stay with it long enough, eventually our comfort zone expands.
Each time we “cross the risk divide” we’re building our capacity for courage. The best leaders practice saying and doing the hard thing, whether it’s calling out hiring bias or thinking beyond quarterly earnings—not because it’s easy or popular, but because it’s right.
What steps am I taking to put in the work?
Practice is defined as a sustained engagement in activities that result in a steady improvement in proficiency. Whether it’s learning to eat your frog first or mastering parivrtta baddha trikonasana, mastery takes effort and time. And, unfortunately for our efficiency-obsessed culture, there are no shortcuts.
Today’s education system still rewards conformity with good grades and gold stars. But having a meaningful influence in the world demands that we do much more than check boxes. We need a generation of leaders who are committed to the practice of leadership.
Imagine a world led by lifelong learners who put curiosity before judgment, who align their life with their convictions, and who have the courage to do the hard things. And imagine that these leaders represent our diversity and are prepared to transform humanity’s greatest challenges into our greatest opportunities. This is the world we can build, but only if we commit to the practice.