I often get asked about what makes a great leader. I used to try and cover all of the aspects of leadership when answering that question, because leading others is a complex and dynamic art. Now I often just answer with a simple phrase: they lead themselves first.
In most cases great leaders were leading themselves long before anyone put them in a position of leading others, that’s how they got there. The people who get promoted to leadership roles are the ones that become leaders long before someone gives them the title. There are many ways that people lead themselves but I’ve tried to capture the essence of what good self-leaders do in these four steps.
Set the Pace
Dwight D. Eisenhower illustrated the art of leadership by placing a string on a table and saying “if you pull it, it will follow you anywhere but if you try to push it, it will go nowhere.” Leadership is about being in front and moving differently than others. It’s about deciding where you want to go and then going there with a sense of purpose. If you are sure of your goals and your destination and are moving toward them you are leading yourself in a way others will quickly notice. It’s impossible to lead from behind. Decide what’s most important to you and start working toward it. Others will soon start looking for ways to follow and support your efforts.
Become the person you would follow:
This may be the hardest concept to execute. We know ourselves inside and out and yet we have to ask on a daily basis, “knowing everything about me, would I follow me?” If the answer is no, we have work to do. It’s not about being perfect or making all of the right choices, but it is about challenging yourself every day to become the person you would respect, admire, and follow. There are too many leaders who spend the majority of their time on creating the public perception of who they want to be rather than working to actually become that person. It’s much harder but as you become someone you would follow you can look back and see that a lot of other people have noticed, and are behind you as well.
Things change fast and if you keep using the same solutions over and over, soon they won’t work. The most dangerous leaders I have ever been around are the ones who already think they have all the answers. Leaders like that stop learning and stop listening. Leaders who are able to overcome their own challenges by learning more, applying new thought processes and constantly considering new ideas will be able to address the new obstacles in their path much more successfully. Keep pushing yourself with new challenges. Find things you are scared to do, and do them. Every time you take a step like that you learn something new, you acquire a new way of thinking. Soon there are fewer and fewer things that you can’t handle or don’t have experience with. Others around you will watch you learning and breaking through barriers and soon begin to do that for themselves. That’s real leadership.
It’s been said that much of leadership is about inspiring others. That’s impossible to do if you can’t inspire yourself. If you can’t point to something that matters to you enough to commit to it, work hard for it and suffer multiple failures before you achieve it, then don’t expect anyone else to get to excited about it either. Leadership is often about envisioning a better future and being willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Make certain that you frame your own vision in a way that compels you. Martin Luther King Jr. probably would have stopped very early in his journey if he had thought about his vision as “I have a suggestion.” If you find something that’s worth doing, and clearly picture what the future would be like if you get it done you can create inspiration for yourself. Then, and only then, do you have what it takes to connect others to that same vision, or even one of their own. That, above anything else, will make them change their own behavior and set out in a new direction. That’s the essence of leadership.
Many leaders are placed in positions of power before they have mastered the art of self-leadership, they usually don’t last. Leading yourself is the most difficult thing that you do every day and yet it’s the only thing that will help you achieve your own goals and dreams and then understand how to help others do that for themselves. Leaders don’t motivate others. Motivation is an inside job and no one can do it for you. What leaders do is help others tap into things they care about, that they are willing to go the extra mile for. Leaders, because of who they are, how they behave and what they believe in, inspire commitment, not just compliance. Compliance is what bosses get. When you are able to create commitment for yourself, then you learn how to help others light their own internal fire. When you lead yourself first, you’ve already become a great leader and in time, others in the organization, the business, or the community, or even the family, will follow your lead.
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