Leadership is not about your hierarchical role — parent, boss, teacher, elected official. It is not about being better or smarter than anybody else, nor is it about comparing oneself in relation to anybody else in any way. It is about how you act.
People who practice the following actions naturally become better leaders. That is to say, others will look to them in a healthy way. On the flipside, even people who possess some type of hierarchical authority may struggle to be effective if they ignore these steps.
Leaders inspire the trust, vision, and action of those around them. Here are some important and applicable ways to inspire trust:
- Say what you’re going to do and do what you say you’re going to do.
- When others speak, listen for their insights more than their inconsistencies and flaws. Think of their ideas as coexistent or cumulative with yours, not competitive.
- Give AND receive work freely.
- Act with consistent and clear purpose.
- Stop apologizing reflexively when it doesn’t matter, and start apologizing graciously when it does.
- Make clear agreements.
- Know your stuff. Devote yourself fully to study and application in your field(s).
- Freely acknowledge what you know you don’t know, and leave plenty of space for what you don’t know you don’t know.
- Remember that often, HOW you do anything matters just as much as WHAT things you do.
- Never threaten anyone. Threats instantly destroy trust.
- Ask others what they need to do their best work, and help them get it.
- Stop making excuses.
- Don’t be afraid to let go of things that aren’t working.
- Notice and acknowledge the achievements of others.
- Seek ease and grace when it comes to your own talents, successes and opinions. Don’t hide them, but don’t force them into a situation either.
- Be prepared — even excited — to answer the question “why?” at any time.
An important role of a leader (note: parents and teachers are very much leaders!), is to set a positive example for those around them. At the same time, leaders must also understand that appearing “perfect” is impossible and toxic to both themselves and others (not to mention frustrating!).
Effective and transformational leaders do not get everything right, and they do not appear or pretend to either. Crucially, however, they do not attempt to dismiss, belittle, or argue for their weaknesses. Leaders actively and creatively strive to identify their blind spots and biases. And they accept full responsibility for the consequences and outcomes of their blind spots.
Leaders are not without fear, but they are willing even in the face of fear, to be blind, make mistakes, and be vulnerable. Leaders are willing to hold themselves and others accountable for standards that are not always met with exquisite ease. Leaders are driven in this way because they are motivated by a purpose and mission that is larger than the desire to conform or to prove something to somebody.
In evaluating your leadership decisions, it can be helpful to ask yourself:
- “Do I defend myself even when I know I have messed up?” (And, similarly, what situations trigger defensiveness in me?)
- “Is looking good a strong motivation for me here?”
- “Do I feel justified shirking my agreements because I perceive someone else shirking theirs?”
Asking ourselves these things is a great way to create chinks in the ego’s armor. The ego (which I will write more about in subsequent posts) is not a bad thing in and of itself. However, we can all be better leaders — in our families, business, or other areas of our lives — when we get underneath our ego’s shell and figure out what is really going on underneath the surface.
We have all made mistakes in our past. While our life experiences contain a treasure trove of wisdom worth sharing and applying, they also contain a disarray of assumptions, projections, misconceptions, ideas, and instincts that do not necessarily function in the ways we believe they do. It is much like scar tissue: randomly layered material designed to efficiently patch up the inevitable “WTF” of living.
Though it is common and sometimes instinctive to think of our scars as the truth of our past, approaching our history from this perspective can help us tap into the power and potentiality of thinking and speaking of our past is a way that makes it more like a treasure and less like damage.
The next time you notice yourself trying to bury an aspect of your past, your personality, or your passion, ask yourself whether you are doing so from a place of fear — fear of judgment, fear or rejection, or even fear of admitting the truth of what happened or what is to yourself. When you find yourself justifying, minimizing, denying, blaming, or rationalizing, ask yourself whether you are doing so in the name of self-protection or in the name of integrity.
Ultimately, being a leader is not a static state of being that can be checked off a list once attained. Rather, it is an ongoing, organic, dynamic, imperfect, and humbling series of choices and actions taken each day, grounded in vision, service, passion, excellence, and humanity.
- Which of the trust-building action steps do you currently practice in your life? Which ones do you not practice regularly?
- Do you wish to be a leader? Why or why not?
- Name one leader that you look up to. Why do you look up to this person? How has this person influenced you?
- What does being a leader mean to you? What traits does a leader possess?
This post was inspired by and is dedicated to one of my yoga teachers.