Discovering Your Path to Purposeful Leadership

Strong leadership is built on a foundation of empathy, understanding and trust. As leaders, we strive to build teams where every member feels valued and is able to contribute at their highest potential. But the path to purposeful leadership is not always straightforward.

In a recent episode of the podcast, I interviewed Dr. Gregory Woodard, a retired 22-year military veteran, Navy chaplain, and devoted follower of Christ. Dr. Woodard shared his insights on aligning with our deepest values to become the leaders we are meant to be.

Know Yourself and Your Purpose

Dr. Woodard emphasized that the most important trait for a leader is to know yourself deeply. This means understanding your unique temperament, personality, tendencies, gifts and purpose. As he put it, “If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t know your temperaments, you don’t know your personality, you don’t know your tendencies… then you very possibly might lead to burnout.” 

When we have clarity on who we are and what we’re called to do, it leads to greater alignment, boldness and conviction in our leadership. We’re able to say yes to the right opportunities and no to the wrong ones. Dr. Woodard challenged leaders to regularly evaluate if they are living out their true calling, and to make adjustments to stay on track.

Prioritize Self-Leadership

Another key insight was the importance of self-leadership and self-care. Many driven leaders, especially when younger, fall into the trap of always saying yes and feeling guilty for tending to their own needs. But as Dr. Woodard warned, “If leaders aren’t careful, if leaders aren’t given permission to take care of themselves… they don’t do effective self-leadership.”

He outlined four key areas that require proactive self-leadership:

  1. Relational rhythms – Fostering meaningful relational connections, especially with peers and family. The level of our relationships can be a sign that something is amiss.
  2. Spiritual rhythms – Regularly connecting with God through practices like prayer, journaling, silence, worship, and Scripture. Letting God speak to us and guide us.
  3. Emotional rhythms – Being aware of our emotions, acknowledging past experiences that affect us, and seeking help when needed. Especially for men, navigating emotions well is a growth area.
  4. Physical rhythms – Taking care of our health through proper exercise, eating, sleeping, and time outdoors. Fatigue is a warning sign that we’re off track.

Dr. Woodard noted that our self-leadership rhythms need to be tailored to our current life stage and season. The practices that worked earlier in our careers when our kids were young may need to adapt as we enter new chapters. The key is being proactive to tend to our needs.

Prepare for the Challenges Ahead

Finally, Dr. Woodard highlighted how vital it is for leaders to put in the preparatory work before challenges arise. He drew the analogy to preparing for military deployment – if you haven’t built up relational, spiritual, emotional, and physical reserves, your deficits will quickly become apparent under stress and strain.

While our leadership journeys may feel more like a “slow boil” than a combat mission, the principle still applies. Dr. Woodard called leaders to establish a “rhythm of life” – an intentional plan for regularly doing the things that will feed our souls and sustain us for the long haul. When we wait until we’re already depleted, it’s too late.

Becoming a purposeful leader requires ongoing growth, self-awareness, and discipline. As Dr. Woodard put it, “I think that’s one of the very deep keys for a young leader – that’s called self-leadership. Being very, very proactive, making sure that you’re doing the things on a regular basis that feed your soul.”

Here are some action steps you can take to put these principles into practice:

  1. Set aside time to reflect on your unique temperament, gifts, and calling. Identify any areas where you may be out of alignment. 
  2. Evaluate your current rhythms and practices for self-leadership in the four areas of relationships, spirituality, emotions, and physical health. Where do you need to focus more attention?
  3. Have honest conversations with your team and family about how they view your leadership. Do they see signs that you’re overextended or not tending to key relationships? Really listen to their input
  4. Schedule regular time for things that replenish you, like date nights with your spouse, prayer/journaling time, exercise, counseling, or coffee with a mentor. Treat this as uncompromisable.
  5. Give yourself permission to say no to opportunities that aren’t aligned with your highest values and purpose, even if they seem good on the surface. Trust that this will enable you to say yes to what matters most.

Leadership is a high calling that requires the best of ourselves. By staying rooted in our purpose, tending to our own needs, and preparing for challenges proactively, we can build strong teams and make the impact we’re meant to make – it’s never too late to realign and recommit to leading well.