We hear a lot these days about passion and leadership. They’re both important, but maybe we’ve become a bit confused about what they really are. Passion and leadership are big, powerful concepts, and together, they can move mountains! But somehow, we’ve managed to make them seem small, singular, and exclusive—like you have to find the one right path and know all the answers, or get really lucky, be born into privilege, or be named Bill or Melinda Gates.
My own career demonstrates that there are many right paths and, more importantly, that passion and leadership are actually much more diverse than we are led to believe.
I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and when I was graduating from high school, I had no idea what my passion was. I graduated valedictorian and yet, according to my school counselor, I was on a fast track to nowhere because my state-mandated career aptitude test didn’t show any clear path forward. Despite my uncertain prospects, I moved on to work as an interpreter in Japan and held positions in advertising, the arts, semiconductors, digital media, identity services, healthcare IT—and I’m currently working on connecting the sky with software and cellular-connected drones on the Verizon wireless network.
I never did wake up one day knowing what my passion was and how I was going to change the world. Along the way, I had self-doubt when there wasn’t a perfectly linear path up and to the right. I questioned myself and whether I was allowing my actions to be defined by others’ expectations. I got to try a lot of different things, and I got to fail at some of them. That may sound like a bummer, but it’s actually fantastic. Because the truth is, I learned that we have many passions and many opportunities to change the world.
When did we start thinking that passion has to be limited to one thing? Or that passion is a “thing” at all, rather than an attitude or a state of mind that can look different for everybody. Your life only makes sense when you look back on it. All of us, no matter what age we are, need to cut ourselves some slack here. It’s usually impossible to get a sense of the patterns that shape your life and passions until well after the fact.
I have learned that my own pattern involves three key questions. Next time you start a new job or pursue a new hobby, consider asking yourself the following:
Does the work matter?
What can I learn?
Who are the people?
Then, if the answers to these questions line up, be willing to take a risk. For me these questions have led to a full and passionate life. Take the leap to let your values and key questions guide you.
Recently, I found myself going back to these three questions—only this time, I was thinking about leadership.
Verizon had purchased Skyward, the drone software startup I worked for, and soon after, they asked me to step up as president. Honestly, I hesitated. I knew the work mattered, and I loved the team, but I worried about taking the risk.
I didn’t think of myself as “the” leader. I thought of myself as the second, the director behind the scenes, and I thought the leader could only be the visionary, the lone individual leading the army. I’m not that super charismatic person who loves to work a room or give a TED talk. I certainly never thought of myself as the person who has all the answers. So, it took me a bit to realize that, just as I had been wrong about one passion, perhaps I was wrong about one way to lead, too.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve bought into this idea that leadership means having it all figured out, all by yourself. There’s a popular idea out there of the leader. Some are born natural leaders, but if you look in the mirror and don’t see the next Greta Thunberg staring back at you, you can still lead. We need many different types of leaders today.
It’s important to remind ourselves that nobody has it all figured out. And nobody succeeds alone. Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama are brilliant, charismatic leaders, and they are supported by huge teams. They got to where they are in part because they are expert collaborators who aren’t afraid to ask for help.
Like passion, leadership is so much bigger and more diverse than we give it credit for. There isn’t just one way to lead and there are so many right answers. The right answer for me turned out to be leading by collaboration.
Collaboration is critical for my work in technology, because it takes a village to invent new products and make them real. Over time I’ve learned that a tremendous amount of innovation comes from just asking questions. Very few of the greatest inventions are the result of a leader who had all the answers. There is so much power in asking the questions. How do we get to the moon? How do we get all the plastic out of the ocean? Or one that I often ask at work, how do we make flying cars real?
If you ask the right questions, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the answers. Because you can always find them with the right team of people, through collaboration. We know that in this diverse, global world, you get better answers with a team with many different voices and perspectives. You still need somebody to be accountable, to set the course, and to empower people to do their best, but I’ve found that people tend to do their best when they work with people they care for on projects that are important, not because some leader has told them what to do.
When I embraced the idea of a collaborative, team-driven management style, being a leader suddenly made sense to me and who I am. I didn’t have to wear a disguise or pretend to be somebody I’m not. I didn’t have to suddenly figure it all out.
As for passion—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to narrow it down to just one thing. Maybe that just means I’ve been lucky to find passion in many different ways. But I suspect that what’s true for me is true for most of us: finding passion is all about who you’re with and whether you’re doing something meaningful together.
Mariah Scott is president of Skyward. She joined Skyward when it was still illegal to fly drones commercially, and managed a successful acquisition by Verizon in 2017, five years after the company was founded She also directed the groundbreaking Intel Inside campaign, drove product strategy for WebMD, and was once the voice of a Japanese fax machine. She’s been in the technology sector since 1999, and is active in creating a pipeline of other female technology leaders by serving on the board of PDX Women in Tech, TAO, and St. Mary’s Academy.