“Matt, how long are you going to be alive?”
“I don’t know. 70-75 years, why?”
“”Well, I don’t know. But I know this; you’re going to be dead longer than you’ll be alive. Remember this one thing. Life is not a dress rehearsal, you’re dead a long time.”
That is the single most profound conversation of my 36 years of life. In those simple sentences, one of the great mentors I have been blessed with introduced me to the secret to success, happiness and leadership. It’s not about style. It’s not about speeches and carefully chosen words. It’s not about money, motorcycles, cars, clothes or any other trapping. What is it? Passion.
After 13 years with the military, I wasn’t “feeling it” anymore. In truth, I was miserable. There is no particular reason for my feelings, just something particular in me. I was not “living the dream” because it wasn’t my dream anymore. The job was stable. It paid well and on time. It even had challenges and a sense of pride from being involved in something greater than myself. There were so many positives, but it had one major negative. I wasn’t passionate about it.
What does passion have to do with anything? If you are asking that question, you aren’t alone. I certainly asked the same one when I began feeling this way. Are we really supposed to be passionate? Is the janitor really passionate about cleaning toilets?
Truth be told, we don’t always have to find passion in our occupation, but it certainly makes it easier to get up in the morning. Many of us have a passion for our family, for providing for them and so our job becomes an extension of that passion. Perhaps we are passionate about helping others or challenging ourselves. Regardless of our particular passion, it is central to whom we are and drives us forward in everything we do.
So, what does this have to do with you as leaders? Everything. When is the last time you thought about what it was that you were really driven by, truly passionate about? How can you lead people if you don’t know what that is? You should know your passion because that will frame the type of leader you are, both your most powerful competencies as well as your blind spots. Your passion will become your source of strength in dark times, and will become the thing you are most known for overall. We often look at leaders and seek their source of charismatic power, and yet we often struggle to define charisma. Gandhi was very different from King who was very different from Patton. Yet they were all charismatic. Why? Because they were passionate. When you have passion, your core will be solidly founded in joy and strength, not couched in cynicism and fear.
Passion goes beyond you as a leader. What are your people passionate about? Are their goals yours or actually theirs? Does that person you see everyday actually love being here, doing what you are doing, or are they dreaming of something else?
I would present this challenge to leaders in an age where we often place passion as a secondary requirement at best. If you are a true leader, in whatever style that may be, you should truly want the best for your organization and its people. Know your people and know their passions. It is not your failure as a leader when someone leaves to pursue his or her passion. It is your failure if you do not encourage them to do so. It is the same failure if you don’t help them understand how important that is.
Modern rhetoric says to “play it safe.” We have become more and more risk averse as time goes by. In truth, my transition scares me. How could it not? I am leaving something I have known for most of my adult life, but it is not my passion. Take a moment and learn about your passion and the passions of your people. Remember, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is the show.