Why good leadership starts with leading yourself

Anthony Howard

Anthony Howard is an executive mentor and founder of The Confidere Group. Known as the ‘CEO Whisperer’, Anthony has written and spoken extensively on Human-Centred Leadership and has recently released a book on the topic, Humanise: Why Human-Centred Leadership is the key to the 21st Century (Wiley, $32.95).anthony.howard@confideregroup.com

Many people first taste leadership when they receive a promotion and find themselves ‘leading’ a team. Over time, the team, and the leader’s responsibility, grows. But do they become better leaders?

What sets apart the great from the mediocre, or the downright horrible? Although there are many factors at play, one of the keys to leadership is self-mastery: Knowing and managing yourself.

When he was CEO of the Ten Network, Grant Blackley observed that staying true to yourself is crucial for a leader. This starts with knowing yourself. It’s more than self-awareness, it’s about taking responsibility for constructing your life, for the person you are and the person you want to become.

Knowing yourself has four key dimensions:

  1. Where are you going
  2. Where are you today
  3. How are you going to get there
  4. Who are you going to be along the way

The question about where you are going involves both your ultimate purpose — why you are on this planet — and your more immediate trajectory. It answers questions about where you want to be through your career and what you are preparing for.

The question about where you are today takes an honest look at your skills, capability, and position relative to your future. This is your location not on Google Maps but on your life map. It is the blinking dot that tells you where you are today. You need to know this clearly in order to plot a course toward your future.

How you will move from where you are to your ultimate destination involves planning and setting out toward your goal, modifying your actions along the way.

The question that matters the most, however, is: “Who are you going to be?” This is a question of character, and one of the keys to attracting followers. People may follow you because of your title, although somewhat reluctantly if you are a poor leader. When they follow you because of your authenticity however you will find much greater engagement. Character is the place where you will do most of the work on yourself. This is the field of self-management and self-leadership. This is where you become the best person you can be.

At the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the British Army’s leadership training facility, character is emphasised from day one. Sandhurst takes young men and women, most of whom are fresh out of university, on an intensive course that turns them into leaders. This rigorous leadership development program focuses on three aspects: Character, intellect and professional competence, within the overall context of service to those in their command.

Sandhurst defines character as “Doing the right thing on a bad day when no one is looking.” Leaders understand the power that comes from having a sound character. Character is a combination of your strengths and values, your moral vision and your moral imagination.

One officer cadet told me the “platoon commander is the moral compass of your platoon. They will point in the direction you point.” This is a profound observation. People align themselves along the direction that their leader points. How essential is it therefore, that a leader knows where they are pointing, and continually work on themselves to point in the right direction.

Failing to answer these questions for yourself means that you are drifting through life, reacting to whatever emerges. People who do this are incredibly difficult to follow. Since they do not know where they are going they cannot lead anyone else. Since they have no commitment to growth and development they cannot foster growth and development in others.

The final reason why you need self-awareness is to avoid falling into the dangerous trap of hubris. This is what happens when you start believing everything that is said about you in introductions and interviews, or thinking that you know more than others around the table. When you are the CEO, you can have a significant impact on people’s lives.

One outcome is that people tell you what you want to hear, or think you want to hear. The leader who manages themselves knows and understands that the position of CEO is merely a role they play at a given moment of time. Who they are, however, should remain consistent over time.

One human resources director told me she cannot work for a CEO who does not know what he or she stands for. This comment highlights why leaders need to start with leading themselves. If you know where you are going, then your followers can embrace your vision and purpose.

Can you imagine Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial saying “I’ve been thinking about a few things, and wonder if it’s time for change …” Uninspiring isn’t it?

Instead, King galvanised a nation with his famous line “I have a dream …” and went on to paint a picture of what that dream looked like, inviting listeners in every generation since to follow him to a better place.

Not every leader is Martin Luther King, or even needs to be. But every leader needs to know their dream, they need to know what matters, they need to know themselves. Because people follow people.

Tags: leadership, strategy

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