Two Ways to Forge Your Leadership Compass

Captain Jack Sparrow: "True enough, this compass does not point north."

Elizabeth Swann: "...Where does it point?"

Captain Jack Sparrow: "It points to the thing you want most in this world."


My kids and I have indulged in watching Pirates of the Caribbean this summer for its fabulous blend of high adventure and magical, mischievous fun. It’s perfect summer fare. Yet within this pirate yarn, there is a powerful leadership lesson to be found.


I believe that every leader needs their own Jack Sparrow compass, what I call a Leadership Compass. It wouldn’t point “north” -- towards those traditional measures of success like advanced degrees, titles, money, market share, data dashboards, accolades, or fame. Rather, it would point you towards what you want most in the world, or what Simon Sinek calls your WHY in one of the most watched TED talks of all time. “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (Start with Why, page 39)


I think of my WHY as my “calling” -- to encourage the light within others to shine brighter so that together we can make the world a better place. It’s the single thread of purpose that has wound its way through everything I’ve done, ever since I was a little girl. It is what I want most in the world. Some people think of their WHY as their cause worth fighting for. Organizations often encapsulate their WHY as their mission statement or vision.


For me, my Leadership Compass gives me a clarity of purpose that helps me navigate uncharted waters and difficult challenges. I know exactly where I am going and why. If there’s a tough choice before me, I know where to turn. I am never lost. WHY driven leaders and organizations are palpably different from “north” (aka success) driven leaders and organizations. Simon Sinek says:


“Great leaders... are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.” (Start with Why, page 6)


There are many ways to find your WHY. I’ll describe two.


Forging Your Leadership Compass - Triangulation

For some of my clients, their WHY emerges at the intersection between three things: their skill stack, their passion, and what the world needs.



My Skill Stack - Tom Pueyo wrote this fascinating piece about How to Become the Best in the World at Something. Pueyo’s insight is that it’s virtually impossible to truly be the best in the world in any one skill. When I watch the Olympics, I marvel at the dedication, talent, and skill required to win gold. If that’s what it takes to be the best in the world at something, then I’ll choose a different path.


Instead, what combination of skills are you pretty good at? What are your strengths? What are the gifts you bring to this world? What Pueyo eloquently points out is that by being pretty good at a combination of skills, you can be the best in the world at that unique set. For instance, I’m pretty good as a leader, though certainly not the best in the world. I’m also a darn fine teacher. I can build trusting, welcoming communities. I’m insightful, empathetic, and a problem solver. I think like a scientist. That’s my skill stack. How many people in the world are good at that specific set of skills? Perhaps, just me.


Sometimes it’s hard to see one’s own strengths. That can be especially tough for hyperachiever-perfectionists like me, who have a habit of focusing on all the ways they aren’t good enough. To combat this, I challenge my clients to ask a bunch of people they trust and who know them well to describe their best skills or strengths. Write down what they say. I did this on my FaceBook feed and promised anyone who left me a comment that I’d leave them a reply listing what I saw as their best strengths in return. Read your friends’ thoughts and look for patterns. It’s amazing how brilliant your gifts to the world appear through your friends’ eyes, unfiltered by self-doubt.


My Passion - Passions are those things that you absolutely love to do. Researchers describe this as a state of flow -- a time when you are loving what you are doing, super focused, and challenged to just the right level. Time and everything else simply melts away because you’re doing exactly what you were meant to be doing at that moment. Psychologist Daniel Goleman describes flow eloquently in this short video.


My passions include teaching, coaching, writing, swing dancing, paddle boarding, gaming, and reading a great book. I could do these things for hours and never feel bored or tired. They make me feel alive. They challenge me. I simply love doing them. My husband gets annoyed when I’m in a flow state because I get so absorbed that he sometimes has to literally tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.


What are your passions that bring you into a state of flow? Write them down.


Some people call the space where your skill stack and your passion overlaps, the “zone of genius”. In this Forbes article, Briana Wiest says, “Your zone of genius is what's most effortless for you. If you are truly able to relax and begin the work, you recognize that you are able to create almost instantaneously, and without too much thought. When you combine this natural talent and skill with hours of practice and repetition, you find yourself among the small percentage of people who can break through and redefine an industry.”


Others’ Needs - Finally, what does the world need that you can offer? Well, my skill stack + my passions could be pretty useful to others if applied in the right way. Where these three circles intersect, you’ll find your WHY. Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn and co-author of The Startup of You, thinks of these circles as Assets (Skill stack), Aspirations (Passions), and Market Realization (Other’s needs) and claims they should always be balanced. In this great short video, he claims, “Skills that don’t earn money, but let you follow your aspirations, are no good in the long run. Similarly, being slave to a market that doesn’t let you follow your passions in life, isn’t sustainable. Search and upgrade your skills such that you are valued in the market, and you follow your aspirations.”


So mull over that magical spot of overlap between your skill stack, your passions, and the needs of the world. Seek your Leadership Compass. What are you naturally good at that others need? What things are begging to be done that you, and you alone, are uniquely able to do? That is your WHY.


You’ll know when you are close when you get chills or when tears well up in your eyes. Your calling is there, waiting to be found.


Forging Your Leadership Compass - Turning Points

Another path towards finding your WHY is described in Simon Sinek’s book Find Your Why. He recommends looking at the critical periods of one’s life, those magic moments when you made a choice that changed you forever after and which led you a step closer to you at your best. What are the themes that draw those moments together?


For instance, right after I earned my PhD, I was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship to conduct research in Cambridge, England, with one of the most prominent neuroscientists of the time. They would pay my salary and travel to live in England. OMG. Right? When my then boyfriend, now husband, didn’t get into the business school he wanted to attend in England, we chose to defer a year. In the space that year created, I was able to honestly reflect on what I truly was passionate about… and it wasn’t neuroscience research. I loved to teach. I loved to ignite people’s natural curiosity. I loved seeing kids’ lights shine bright. So, I turned down that prestigious NSF fellowship and taught middle school science and math instead. And I absolutely loved teaching. It wasn’t effortless by any stretch of the imagination, but getting kids to fall in love with science definitely brought me a step closer to my WHY.


Fast forward 11 years and I was the department chair and a tenured faculty member at California State University, Chico, teaching teachers how to teach science. Professors work their tails off to earn tenure, and once they have it, they tend to stay for the rest of their careers (after all, that’s kind of what tenure is all about). I chose to become the Administrator and Superintendent of my son’s charter school instead.


The mission of Chrysalis Charter School is “to encourage the light within each student to shine brighter.” When I toured the school to see if it was the right place for my son, I turned to my husband and said, “This place feels like home.” During my interview (in fact, during any interview for any employee from playground aide to teacher), the most important question Chrysalis asks is “What does our mission mean to you? Give a few examples of how you’ve made that a reality.” It becomes immediately apparent who has a personal mission that aligns with the organization. I was drawn to Chrysalis like a moth to a flame because its mission called to me. When an entire team is comprised of people who believe in the mission whole-heartedly, together, they can move mountains because they do the work to achieve the common vision, not because they have to, but because they want to.


Becoming a school leader took me a step closer to me at my best and my WHY. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that Chrysalis’ mission has become my WHY. For a long time, I thought that “making a difference” was my purpose. But as I thought more and more about it, I realized that making a difference was too broad. I didn’t want to make just any kind of difference. I wanted to light people up from the inside, to help them find their Leadership Compass, and to guide them in realizing their vision. Together, as a community of leaders shining our lights, we can make the world better.


Every step of my path has taken me closer to my calling. What is the theme that winds through your whole life, from the time you were a child to now, that connects all the turning points and all the you-at-your-best moments? By connecting those dots, you’ll find your WHY. And if you extend that line into the future, you can follow your Leadership Compass.


Caveat: WHY Work Isn’t Always Paid Work


There’s one final important note I’d like to leave to you with. In Designing Your Work Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans caution: “In the modern workplace, people aspire to having their income-producing work also be their meaning-producing work. You’re making the impact in the world you most care about and you are getting paid to do it… This is the unicorn. Seriously. These people seem to think that you ought to be able to find your passion and get paid to do it. Every day. All day. For lots of money. Most of the time, however, it’s just not possible.” (p. 58)


If you can get paid well to follow your WHY, you are one of the lucky ones. I am so grateful that I have been one of those lucky few nearly my whole life.


Others choose to get paid moderately or poorly to follow their WHY. To all the passionate educators, museum and zoo employees, nonprofit leaders, and oh so many more, I tip my hat to you.


And others choose paid work that takes advantage of their skill stack, but follow their WHY in their off hours. The world desperately needs you too. For instance, my husband is a web developer, and a damn fine one at that. (No, he didn’t design my website. He aims way bigger than that.) He’s great at what he does but it’s not his passion. His WHY is bringing people together to build something together, and he does that through Rotary, the local Chamber of Commerce, his fraternity, and many other outlets. His paid work offers him the time and location flexibility to pursue his WHY. There are millions of working parents out there whose WHY is all about their families and kids, and their work pays the bills so that they can be there for their kids.


Any and all of these paths are perfect in their own way. Meaningful work isn’t always paid work. However, a meaningful life is essential for true fulfillment. Find a path that’s right for you.


Read More

Simon Sinek was recently interviewed by Chris Anderson, head of TED. He describes how to discover your WHY in the midst of a pandemic or other difficult moments. It’s brilliant and timely. Watch it here. Or check out some of the wonderful resource materials that he’s developed to find your WHY.


I highly recommend reading Tom Pueyo’s full article How to Become the Best in the World at Something. It completely changed how I think about a person’s skill set.


You can read the story about how Chrysalis Charter School found its mission through with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the characteristic bottom-up emergent style of our school’s founder, Paul Krafel, on the school website.


Going Further

Would you like to forge your Leadership Compass amongst the redwoods and sea caves of Mendocino, CA? Then join me and fellow executive coach, Tutti Taygerly, for the Heroine's Journey Women's Leadership Retreat. We will be doing that and a whole lot more (including adventure, connection, and unplugged downtime) over Labor Day weekend. Apply today or email me at irene@irenesalter.com for more information.


The new Book Club book is The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal, who happens to be a Stanford psychologist like me! The back cover claims that this book will "show you how to fall in love with movement". I definitely need that this summer. How about you? We are a group of mid-career professionals from all over the world that meet the last Thursday of every month from 4-5 pm Pacific. Join us.


I never advertise or use marketing. The only way my business grows is by word of mouth and referral. So if you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing and/or sharing with a friend. Thank you for reading!




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