Leading Yourself

What has been your greatest challenge as a leader? Your mind may go to a season of struggle for your organization, a particularly difficult problem you had to deal with, or a person who betrayed you or caused your team to fail. But if you’re really gut-level honest, the greatest challenge leaders face is leading themselves.

Most people use two totally different sets of criteria for judging themselves versus others. We tend to judge others according to their actions and results. We often see our observations as very cut-and-dried. However, we judge ourselves by our intentions. Even when we do the wrong thing or the results are terrible, if we believe our motives were good, we let ourselves off the hook. And we are often willing to do that over and over before requiring ourselves to change. That doesn’t make us effective leaders.

The leaders I know tend to be impatient. They look ahead, think ahead, and want to move ahead. And that can be good. Being one step ahead makes you a leader. However, that can also be bad. If you’re out front but you’re impatient with your team, you may resent them instead of encouraging them to come along with you. That makes you less effective as a leader.

People who lead themselves well know a secret: they can’t trust themselves. Good leaders know that power can be seductive, and they understand their own fallibility. To be a leader and deny this is to put yourself in danger.

Lack of accountability in our personal life will certainly lead to problems in our public life. We saw that time and time again with high-profile CEOs a few years ago. A Chinese proverb says, “When you see a good man, think of emulating him; when you see a bad man, examine your heart.”

Many people think of accountability as a willingness to explain their actions. I believe that effective accountability begins before we take action. It starts with getting advice from others. Many leaders find this difficult, and sometimes their openness to advice is developed only in stages as they become better at leading themselves.

Leading yourself well means that you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability than others do. Why? Because you are held responsible not only for your own actions but also for those of the people you lead. Leadership is a trust, not a right. For that reason, we must “fix” ourselves earlier than others may be required to. We must always seek to do what’s right, no matter how high we rise or how powerful we become. It’s a struggle we never outgrow.

You cannot grow to your maximum potential if you continually work outside of your strengths. Improvement is always related to ability. The greater your natural ability, the greater your potential for improvement. I’ve known people who thought that reaching their potential would come from shoring up their weaknesses. But do you know what happens when you spend all your time working on your weaknesses and never developing your strengths? If you work really hard, you might claw your way all the way up to mediocrity! But you’ll never get beyond it. Nobody admires or rewards mediocrity.

People who reach their potential spend less time asking, “What am I doing right?” and more time asking, “What am I doing well?” The first is a moral question; the second is a talent question. You should always strive to do what’s right. But doing what’s right doesn’t tell you anything about your talent. What skills and abilities do you have that are way beyond average? These strengths should be what you develop. When we consider our strengths, we tend to think too broadly. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, writes, “The great mystery isn’t that people do things badly but that they occasionally do a few things well. The only thing that is universal is incompetence. Strength is always specific! Nobody ever commented, for example, that the great violinist Jascha Heifetz probably couldn’t play the trumpet well.”

The more specific you can get about your strengths, the better the chance you can find your “sweet spot.” Why be on the fringes of your strength zone when you have a chance to be right in the center? What are your strengths within your strengths?

Many times we take our talents for granted. We think because we can do something well, anyone can. That’s often not true. How can you tell when you’re overlooking a skill or talent? Listen to what others say. When you’re working in areas of weakness, few people will show interest. They won’t compliment you. In contrast, your strengths will capture the attention of others and draw them to you. If others are continually praising you in a particular area, identify it, examine it, and start developing it.