Note from Jen: Working backward from impact

August 7, 2018

We talk a lot at the Bush Foundation about how you don’t have to have a “leadership role” to be a leader. You can lead from anywhere. It is a bit more awkward to talk about the corollary truth, which is that just because you have the “leadership role” doesn’t mean you are leading.

Leadership is fundamentally about your impact on other people. It is not whether you have the title or run the meeting. And it is not whether you have good intentions. It is whether you move others to action.

A couple years ago at bushCONNECT we had the comedian Cameron Esposito talk about comedy and leadership. It was brilliant. I think about it a lot. She talked about how the first time you do standup comedy you are not funny. The audience does not laugh. And that the trick is figuring out how to craft a joke based on the understanding of how it will sound in the audience person's head. It's not about what you think is funny. It's about what will make other people laugh.

Comedy, like leadership, is about having some effect on other people. They laugh or they don't laugh, which helps you figure out what you need to change and adjust.

The effect is not always so clear in leadership. Leaders don't always get the feedback they need to be able to understand their impact on their colleagues and their communities and adjust. (To me, if there's one leadership superpower, it is being great at getting and incorporating feedback. It can make you better at everything else.) So how can you know if you are really having the impact you intend to have?

For me, it helps if I am as clear as possible on the impact I want to have on others and then work backward.

For example, before every Bush Foundation board meeting, I think — how do I want the board to feel at the end of this day? I want them to feel like they got the real scoop of what is going on at the Foundation and feel confident in their oversight role. I want them to feel like we as staff are delivering on what we said we would do.  I want them to feel like it was a day well spent – that they made a difference and had a good time doing it.

That's the impact I want. So then I design the meeting with that impact in mind. With that clarity on the impact I am intending to have, it is way easier to get specific feedback on whether it worked.

It’s a simple little mental exercise. But explicitly working backward from the impact I want to have on others helps me focus on leading toward that impact vs. just doing leadership functions.  

There are lots and lots of us in “leadership roles” in this region. So… are we having the impact we want? Are we inspiring and supporting people to do something different — to do something more or something better — than they would without us in the role? Those are hard (and humbling) questions for us all to ask every day.