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contribution & leadership

In Garr Reynold’s book, Presentation Zen, he quotes Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Symphony, as saying, “We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.” 

Watch Ben Zander's TED Talk here: The Transformative Power of Classical Music


I wish more people had Zander's approach to their work. I want to have that approach. 

Check out Reynolds' June 23, 2015 blog post on contribution - it's excellent!

Contribution is influence and influence is leadership. This is why I've paired these two topics. People who have a "contributor" mindset--who bring value above the norm--to their spaces and workplaces are treasured and rewarded. They are also followed.


Leadership is directional. The leader points the way, sets the vision, and others follow. It's not the same as management. Management is about processes and efficiency, but leadership is about inspiration because a leader is not a leader unless others are willing to follow him or her. We might seek to please a manager in order to keep our jobs, but we seek to actually emulate an inspirational leader. 

How great leaders communicate (George Anders)

Leadership is authentic, like passion. Too many folks keep scorecards or fear making mistakes. Zander encourages his musicians to lean into their performances and play with so much passion that it is impossible to stay flat on their chairs. “If you play that way,” he says, “they won’t be able to resist you.” People love passion, and passion shows. It's authentic. It’s contagious. It helps us “lighten up” according to Zander, and helps us lift those around us.


“When you lighten up, you see yourself as permeable, not vulnerable,” says Zander’s wife, who co-authored The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life with him. The focus comes off ourselves and moves onto others as we seek ways to make a difference in their lives and stop worrying so much about our own.

What being an “authentic leader” really means (HBR)

The importance of authentic communication (Sheryl Sandberg on YouTube)

Servant leadership is transformational. Contribution requires a heart of servitude, not one of self-service. It's not about protecting our own self-interests, but about thinking of what's best for those around us.

When I teach Servant Leadership classes, I teach that leadership is about influence, not power. It's an inside-out job, as Ken Blanchard says. Simon Sinek talks about this transformational type of leadership in his book, Leaders Eat Last. In the marines, leaders practice this principle.

Check out this video of Simon Sinek talking about Leaders Eat Last.

And this video of Ken Blanchard talking about Servant Leadership.

So how do we make contributions exactly? Three ways...

1. We contribute through our attitude. Victor Frankl said the last of man’s freedoms was his ability to choose his own attitude. Young people who are coachable--who are receptive to learning--are especially refreshing in the workplace. The book of Proverbs talks about this – it urges the young to seek wisdom at all cost.

"The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction…

…let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance…

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction."

                                                                                                                                                           Proverbs 1:1-7, NIV

2. We contribute through our continued personal growth. “A rising tide lifts all the boats.” This was a common saying that appeared on the letterhead of the New England Council in 1960. Ted Sorensen, speechwriter for JFK at that time, worked it into the president’s speeches on multiple occasions.

3. We contribute by building strong relationships. There are four specific kinds of messages you can send in the workplace that will contribute to others and help you build strong relationships. Each of these is fairly simple and everyone knows how meaningful they are yet few people take the time to send them. If you do, you’ll set yourself apart.

How to make your life better by sending five simple emails (Time)

Each of these notes should be short, specific, simple, spontaneous, and sincere.

1. Thank you notes.

A personal thank you note should be sent to anyone who does you a kindness or favor in the workplace. Send one to support staff who go out of their way to help you. Send one to colleagues who help you with an event or project. Send one after interviews.

2. Empathy (rather than sympathy) notes.

Express your sorrow for others’ losses, whether they’ve suffered a physical loss (death of a family member), or the loss of something meaningful to them (a job, a coveted client, a proposal, a personal goal or dream, or they received a bad health report).

Be empathetic (me, too) rather than sympathetic (poor you) in your word choices. Brene Brown, who wrote The Gifts of Imperfection and delivered the popular TED Talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame, says that two of the most healing words in the English language are “me, too.”

Tim Elmore, of Growing Leaders, ties empathy to being a better listener. He says, "If you want to become a good listener, you'll need to work on two things: showing empathy and asking good questions."

3. Congratulatory notes.

Many of us think to express empathy with the hurting, but fail to celebrate our co-workers’ victories. It’s magnanimous and unselfish to share congratulatory notes with co-workers when they have personal successes. A congratulatory note can be every bit as meaningful and memorable as a sympathy note, sometimes even more so because it's rare.

4. FYI messages.

When you come across information you know would benefit a co-worker, share it! Shared information is a blessing. Many of the articles I have posted on my website are the result of someone sharing an article with me. When you take a moment to share resources with others, you deepen their understanding and reveal yourself as a contributor.

It’s nice to send each of these four personal messages as a handwritten note, but when those are not readily available, emails and other forms of social media messaging are also thoughtful. Because handwritten notes are rare, they are often kept longer. I keep mine on a shelf in my office for several months at a time then add them to a personal folder that I read about once a year, or when I’m feeling blue. It’s a wonderful mood lifter.

A final word on contribution...


Contribute your best to the things that matter most. Greg McKeown wrote a book called Essentialism, that says that if we are to give our greatest contribution in any given area, we must guard against taking on too many tasks. The more divided our time and attention, the less we can accomplish.

How to say no gracefully (Greg McKeown)

May you cultivate a "contributor" mindset and be a force for good in all the spaces in which you work and live.

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