HOW TO SUCCEED IN BEING HUMAN (without really trying)

by Lisa Cadigan

“There is a Brotherhood of Man,
A Benevolent Brotherhood of Man,
A noble tie that binds
All human hearts and minds
Into one Brotherhood of Man.

Your lifelong membership is free.
Keep agivin’ each brother all you can.
Oh aren’t you proud to be
In that fraternity,
The great big Brotherhood of Man?”

–The Brotherhood of Man, from “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)”

OK, so I will admit, I wish there were more women in this number.  Some people may be put off by the fact that the quote above does not include a “sisterhood of women,” but when we talk about success, I would like to emphasize a larger picture of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity.

I was recently invited to participate on a panel of women at Gettysburg College to discuss Sheryl Sandburg’s book, Lean In.  I was a little nervous about this, because although I think each chapter of the book offers wonderful advice, if I had to choose an ideal outcome, assuming a world full of people following that guidance, I don’t share Sheryl Sandburg’s 50/50 vision.  I guess it’s a possibility.  It just doesn’t strike me as the most important consideration when defining success.

There was a time, as a younger woman, when I would have been reluctant to sit on a panel of highly career-oriented women to share my story.  Even as I write this essay, I don’t want to give the impression that my career is not important to me – it is – and I am deeply thankful to the women who have pioneered before me, making it possible for me to have more choices in my life.  But my career is not at the root of my definition of success.  I am 40 now (I love being 40), and I have two kids and a bit of life experience under my belt, so I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to “lean in,” “sit at the table,” and say my piece. As a woman and a human, I am honored to share a viewpoint worthy of representation in this discussion.

On the panel, I spoke about how I have come to define success and leadership during my 40-year tenure as a human being.  For me, the definition of success is pretty simple – it is not measured by job title, salary level or what house I can afford.  These are limited benchmarks used to measure a “successful career” that often lead to defining one person’s success by comparing it to someone else’s.  Although I love my job, and I am interested in success in my career, I am much more interested in having a “successful life.”  And when I consider whether or not I am living a successful life, there are only two assessment questions I need to answer at the end of every day:

  1. Am I happy?
  2. Have I done something today to leave this world better than I found it?

This definition of success also shapes the way I think about leadership.  When I think of inspiring leaders, the people who come to my mind are not necessarily those who have set out to attain a high-ranking position in a company or in government.  Good leaders may or may not hold these types of positions because it is not one’s job description that defines her as a leader. The most inspiring leaders are those who have passion and follow it fearlessly with the purpose of making a positive impact. They follow all of the advice in Sandburg’s book, but this may or may not result in choosing to climb a corporate ladder (or even play on the jungle gym).  Fame, rank and title do not make good leaders – passion, service to others and integrity make good leaders.  And we need all kinds of leaders.  We need the women CEO’s and we need the stay-at-home moms; we need the kindergarten teachers and the social workers and the doctors and the presidents of the PTO, men and women, including the people who choose to serve humanity and lead without raising children at all.  The world needs us all.

I recently read a blog entry by Glennon Melton, where she described herself as the “accidental leader” of many women. She defined leadership as “joyful service.”  I love that definition of leadership.  THAT definition of leadership means we can be leaders in every moment of every day by simply treating people with kindness, compassion and respect.  THAT definition of leadership says by treating people kindly and keeping our focus on doing the next right thing, we are teaching others to be more kind.  We are recognizing that not only do I have a right to sit at the table and be heard, but everyone else does, too.  We are acknowledging that we are all teachers and students to each other.  This is not just a message for women – this is a message for humans.  THAT kind of leadership makes me think of visionaries like Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa; people who selflessly dedicated their lives to serving others.  Mother Theresa wasn’t an inspiring leader because of her job title.  She was an inspiring leader because when people saw the passionate light aglow in her to help people and make the world a better place, they couldn’t help but want to follow her example.

I can practice joyful service with the President of the United States and by helping the bagger at my local grocery store.  I can practice joyful service with my clients and my children and my husband and my family and my friends and my community … every single day.

The funny thing is, when I do these things – when I focus on treating the person in front of me as the most important person in the world, whether it is a new client or my son’s buddy at school, all kinds of opportunities seem to open up for me.  I am suddenly invited to speak on a panel of successful women…and asked to serve on the Board of Directors at my local arts council…and forced to turn down new projects for work because my plate is just too full.  I live in abundance.  The externals, like my bank balance and what car I am driving, suddenly seem pretty trivial, but are also surprisingly always enough.  Most importantly, I feel pretty darn happy.  I think the Dalai Lama (another great leader, by the way) calls this phenomenon “wisely selfish.”

Am I happy?  Have I done something today that makes the world a better place?  These two questions provide an umbrella over every hat I wear in my life: mother, wife, sister, friend, daughter, businesswoman, human being.  So, yes, I will continue to passionately imagine great things for myself without limiting the possibilities of what I can accomplish; yes, I will sit at the table and raise my hand and be fearless…but I will not define the success of my life by someone else’s idea of what that means.  I will not replace one stereotype that limits women in the workplace with an alternative stereotype that defines leadership and success in a way that does not feel authentic to me.  If I have done my best to be a successful leader during the course of each day, there are no barriers left to overcome.  And I have to wonder, if we could somehow collect data on success and leadership according to these definitions, would we find that 50% of our society actually IS being led by women?  The answer is: probably. But I don’t know that it matters.  My wish is for all humans to be successful, and the pathway to a successful life comes from each of us doing our part in the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity.

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8 comments on “HOW TO SUCCEED IN BEING HUMAN (without really trying)

  1. Hands Free Mama on said:

    I am giving a standing ovation and clapping my little heart out! YES! The world needs more “leaders” of this kind. And each day, I pray I am not only modeling this for my children, but teaching them how to practice “joyful service” with friends, teachers, salespeople, and even strangers. Thank you for spreading this valuable message. I feel so hopeful about the future when I read your words. xo

    • Likewise, friend. Thank you so much for reading and for your feedback :) I am so happy to know that there are others out there spreading hopeful messages, too.

  2. Laura Perry on said:

    This is so great, Lisa. I have been thinking an awful lot, of late, about my need to FOCUS on who is in front of me. I think (especially the past couple of years when I was wrapped up in so much personal turmoil) I didn’t do a very good job of doing that. I really concentrate now on trying to be in the moment with the people I encounter, and to make sure they feel they have my undivided attention. I am not always successful, but it is definitely a priority.

    • Who’s *always* successful at being present? Nobody. Which means we’re succeeding in being human…Gotta love success :)
      Thanks for reading and sharing!

  3. Barb Castelli on said:

    Inspiring blog, Lisa. You ARE a leader!!!!! :)

  4. joan rekemeier on said:

    I have a lump in my throat. I will try to be consciously aware of tjese two questions and ask the same of myself daily. It is so true that when you serve others and treat everyone with kindness, the universe gives back. Beautiful entry and I am proud to be represented by you!!

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