Leadership is not something that can be turned on and off for convenience or for taking the easy way out of responding to a particular situation. It requires a commitment to continually educate and develop yourself, nurturing complex relationships and earning the respect of those you lead, those you follow, and those who either regularly or occasionally are part of your life. The journey begins inside. Therefore, the first person you must lead before you can lead others is yourself.
Leaders are defined by their choices, decisions and attitudes. In these tumultuous times, what comes to the surface so often is the global crisis-level deficit of positive, ethical, and effective leadership. A reversal of this crisis can only be reversed one individual at a time. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Developing the foresight and discipline to lead yourself, and lead others by your example, is the hallmark of a true leader. You must strive to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and work with a positive let’s-make-it-happen attitude. With every moment of every day, as you build your own road to success, ask yourself: Is this action building a wall that holds others back or a bridge that facilitates their advancement?
At West Point, students follow an honor code, “I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” This code sets the bar high for leading yourself first by being honest and trustworthy. It sets the bar even higher by demanding that you expect or, to take it one step further, demand the same from others – trusting that they have what it takes to live up to those high standards until you have reason to think otherwise.
Emotion allows you to be a passionate leader, as long as you are able to balance the emotion or passion with a response that is intellectually appropriate to the situation. The heart and mind, working together, serve as the foundation for leadership that incorporates character and competence: the fusion of emotionally empathetic intellect with knowledge-based skills. Your heart forges the qualities that come more naturally to you—the expressive impact you have on those you lead. Your mind forges your skill—the principles and values you master over time. The two merge to sharpen your response to each challenge.
We all make mistakes. In fact, it’s the quickest way to learn a lesson. If you’re a true leader, you demonstrate character by taking responsibility for your mistakes, rather than looking for someone to blame. And you don’t make the same mistake twice. Your true character is who you are when no one else is watching. If you want to be an effective, inspirational, and influential leader, you must be able to uphold high standards and hold yourself accountable.
A proactive, positive approach to leadership is more about teaching and less about exerting authority. To build bridges with those you wish to lead, especially in a demanding situation, extend yourself to others, share, listen, influence and be willing to admit that you aren’t always right or don’t always have all the answers. Many times listening to those who live and work “where the rubber meets the road” provides insight that isn’t always evident at the higher decision-making level. To be an effective leader, you must also be open to a collegial exchange of ideas.
This might sound counterintuitive, but people who genuinely focus on others before themselves receive much more than they give—personally and professionally. Even when you are busy, it’s important to make yourself available to teach, coach and mentor. As you move up the ranks, your responsibilities become greater, and it becomes easier to put up barriers. Serve others first and check your ego at the door. As Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
When you are part of an organization that is both disciplined and respectful, the environment will be demanding but also foster trust and cooperation among its members. The flip side is an organization that is disciplined, but lacks respect and professionalism. This second equation generates a demeaning, controlling and toxic environment. Ultimately, this dictatorial type of organization erodes order and trust – and leads to failure.
As a leader you will grapple with disappointments and new challenges on a daily basis. The key is to control your response, take a deep breath and tell yourself to listen and reflect before reacting. That doesn’t, or shouldn’t, mean you are ignoring or avoiding the situation – you are simply taking the time to absorb the information so you can make a rational, unemotional response. Just as leaders must adjust their approach based on who they are leading, they must also adjust to each circumstance. Above all, you must avoid being defensive or saying something that you will regret. Remember: Just because you have the right to say something, does not mean you should!
If you want to achieve excellence personally and professionally, you must be disciplined and demand excellence of yourself first and foremost. How can you achieve this? Give orders, guidance or direction in your own name. That means you don’t blame the boss, the system, or corporate headquarters when directing your team. If it is a required standard, policy, or program, make sure you and your team act according to those requirements and track the details. When a standard isn’t followed, investigate and determine the reason. Leaders should look for opportunities to develop those they lead rather than destroy them, becoming the force that helps others change for the better.
In tough situations, particularly those where your work or that of your team is being questioned by your boss, it’s easy to let negativity overtake your outlook. Every moment of the day, be attuned to when your thoughts turn negative, and work to prevent that pessimism from evolving into blaming those around you. Keep in mind; it is human nature to see the failings of others more quickly than we see our own shortcomings. Being accountable for your actions and caring about how you lead others means that you must make each situation personal, not only when dealing with the big challenges, but in everyday activities and relationships.
If you quit every time things get tough, you will miss out on wonderful opportunities for yourself and for helping others. Not quitting can open doors to incredible adventures, valuable experiences, rich relationships, and rewarding moments of learning. Instead of quitting, make adjustments and know that with each new challenge you will learn more about yourself, gain new resources and knowledge, and may have a change of heart or come to understand a different point of view. If in doubt, ask yourself: Will quitting create more opportunities or a better outcome? Minimize your regrets and resolve not to give up.
Developing good leadership skills is a life-long process. If you lead by example, are true to yourself, forgiving of others, determined, and lead with purpose, you will have the means to not only achieve success but go beyond it to make a significant impact on those around you.
Although we may think of ourselves as ordinary, each of us possesses potential. How we put our personal skills and traits into action is what makes us unique. When we make the right choices for the right reasons we are able to turn ordinary into extraordinary.
No matter how successful you become or how high your status, you will always be working with your personal strengths and weaknesses. The key to effective leadership is to take advantage of your strengths so that you can continue to develop them, and recognize your weaknesses with humility, honesty, and the courage to change.
Your personal development as a leader relies heavily on your attitude and willingness to continue to learn. You cannot know everything, but you can better yourself daily. In the military, we call it, “Improving your foxhole every day.”
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