Leaders, first and foremost, lead themselves. Self-leadership happens in the small, quiet moments of everyday living when no one is looking. Your character is the accumulation and culmination of each one of your actions—big and small, known and unknown. Make excellence a part of all you do. Make each moment your masterpiece. As Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, “Shine your shoes for the [lady] in the back row.” Don’t worry if no one notices because someday—after many moments of just you, your dream, and your daily task—they will. It’s hard to hide brilliance and beauty and a job well done.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
- Aristotle, Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist
Words are only worth so much. People want proof. They want to be shown how, not just told how. They want to see results, not just be promised them. They want to see you in the trenches—buried in the muck, getting your hands dirty, co-laboring with them. People have an inherent tendency to repeat what they see. This is called the Law of Emulation—the time-tested principle of leading by example. Any inconsistency between word and action will lose you followers. So roll up your sleeves and dig in, enthusiastically engaging at every level of the organization while modelling the way.
“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”
- Ken Kesey, American novelist and countercultural figure
Become comfortable being uncomfortable. As a leader, you will have to navigate a world of ambiguity. Fear not. Live true to yourself, stay confident in your calling, and focus on the next step forward. Remember, men and women of action are favored by the goddess of good luck. They’re also followed. Courage is contagious. People are willing to jump into the unknown if someone else goes before them. Create the conditions for others to follow you without risk—accept blame fully, but share credit generously—while preparing for the unknown as best you can. You can’t predict the future, yet there’s no need to go into it blindly.
“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”
- Douglas MacArthur, Former five-star general of the US Army
We all have insecurities and self-pity sob stories. I’m not likeable. I’m not good-looking. I’m broke or broken. I’ve made a big mistake in the past or my parents made it for me. These victim stories can be narratives that we repeat to ourselves as an excuse to wallow or withdraw. It’s true that life is not fair, but in one thing it does not discriminate: hardship and heartache. This is the harsh reality of the human condition. But you do have a choice. Choose to learn from your past, work on your areas of weakness, and live an empowering victory rather than a victim story. The next chapter is always yours to write.
“The biggest threat to your future is the past you won’t let go.”
Lead from your authentic self. Trying to be someone else will eventually break you down, blur your vision, and alienate followers. Fakes are eventually found out. Fortunately, there are as many types of leaders as there are people and personalities. Just be the best version of yourself that you can be. Others will respect you for it because it gives them permission to do the same. They’ll also love you for it because it allows them to get close to you. Authenticity has that effect. It creates a culture of intimacy, vulnerability, and ultimately, connectivity. The heart of leadership is connection, which always begins by being yourself.
“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”
- Warren Bennis, Scholar and pioneer in the field of leadership studies
Character is the cornerstone of leadership. Why? Because trust is the result of character. And people will only follow you to the extent that they trust you. This trust can take years to build and seconds to lose, which is why leaders are leaders everywhere—at work, at home, and within their social circles and faith communities. This doesn’t mean that you always need to be the face in front. It means that you are always attentive to your internal moral compass. Honesty, humility, bravery, and determination—these character traits must follow you everywhere. They are the wake you leave behind and the crest you create ahead—they are your destiny.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
You will be criticized, scrutinized, attacked, mocked, and maybe even hated. You will be falsely accused, lied to, and most likely laughed at, by friend and foe alike. Leaders must learn to live with thick skin, but soft hearts. Ignore hecklers and haters. Value constructive criticism, but hold it loosely. Invest in an inner circle of trusted friends for support. Strive to serve as many of your constituents as possible, but without compromising your mission. You cannot and will not be able to please everyone. That’s okay. Pick your battles and focus forward, while letting go of negatively and living lightly.
“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt, Human rights activist and former First Lady of the United States
Ditch the hero worship. One person will not save your organization or singlehandedly bring a big vision to fruition. One person can be a spark, but successful organizations are sustained by a community of leaders in which everyone contributes to the collective flame. The “Superchicken Model” is outdated, inaccurate, and ineffective. Teamwork always trumps isolated top performers, and charisma is much less important than character and the ability to collaborate with teammates—learnable traits or skills. Leadership is not biological or oligarchical. Leadership is fundamentals. And fundamentals can be learned.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
- Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Leadership is developed daily, not in a day. And each day presents a thousand opportunities to become a better leader. The world is waiting for the difference only you can make. Don’t wait for approval or a title. Don’t allow others to discourage you with quips of “you’re not qualified.” The only way to gain experience is by experiencing. So share your vision, build your team, and take action. Don’t take no for an answer—remember that rules are usually just recommendations, that problems are really opportunities, and that, in the game of life, the only losers are those who don’t play.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
- Frederick Douglass, Social reformer and abolitionist
So what’s holding you back from becoming a better leader? Fear. It’s always fear. Fear of giving without the promise of return. Fear of inexperience or inadequacy. Fear of sharing your vision or of what others will think if you aim for the unknown or extraordinary. Maybe even the fear of success—fear that if it all works, you’ll actually have something to lose. But love casts out fear. Let the desire to make a difference in your world transcend the fear that would otherwise hold you back. Feel the fear and act anyways. Take one step forward—just one. If you don’t, who will?
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”
- John Kenneth Galbraith, Canadian economist and diplomat