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Can You Be A Leader If You Don’t Lead Yourself?

Boulder, Colorado

January 3, 2021

When I first look at my phone each morning, I am greeted with a reminder - “it’s not about me.” I chose that reminder a couple of years ago to help me get out of my head and to remember that by just doing little things to help others we can each make our communities a better place to live.

I thought about that as I read Gary Burnison’s letter this week on leadership. Each of us is a leader, even if the only person you are leading is yourself. By becoming better at leading ourselves, we develop the attitude and skills we need when we are asked to lead more than ourselves. If we’ve practiced on ourselves, the transition to leading others is not a big step.

Here’s Mister Burnison’s letter:

The ripple of empathetic leadership that spread across organizations last year needs to become a tidal wave in 2021. Our mantra for the New Year—whether we lead a team of 5, 5,000 or 50,000—should be the relentless pursuit of providing opportunity, mentoring and sponsoring others. Opportunity is the gateway for each of us to discover our potential. We all know what the opposite feels like. When I was in fifth grade, my dad somehow managed to get me a second-hand snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, and those cool wire drum brushes. Soon, I was playing along with the radio—R&B, rock, anything with a beat. A few weeks later, the school band held tryouts, and I couldn’t wait to show what I could do. The band director, though, had a different strategy. He just had everyone march around the gym. So there I was, an 11-year-old, stomping to some scratchy marching band record played over crackling loudspeakers—me and about a hundred other kids. After the tryout, I heard them call name after name—but not mine. Over the years I’ve reflected on that experience as an example of what not to do. Leadership is all about inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. However, this requires a shift in mindset because, unfortunately, it’s simply not human nature for most people to focus first on developing others. Yet, indeed, that’s exactly what we need to do. Ken Blanchard, the leadership guru with whom I’ve had great discussions, often tells a story about his early days as a college professor. His approach was radical. On the first day of class, he gave his students the answers to the final exam. Ken often found himself in trouble with other faculty members, but he defended his decision by explaining his main job was to teach students the content they needed to learn—not to evaluate them along some distribution curve. It’s a concept Ken calls “Helping People Get an A.” Now contrast that with my daughter Emily’s experience in a class she took last semester. On the first day, the professor proudly announced, “Nobody gets an A in myclass.” Having high standards is one thing, but to say that no one can excel is completely demotivating! We need a radically human approach to leadership and a set of leadership resolutions for 2021. Let’s commit to them heart, mind, and soul. Here are some thoughts:

  • It starts with you. Awareness awakens. Before we do anything else, we resolve to take a look in the mirror at our values, motivations, strengths, and blind spots. By knowing ourselves we can manage ourselves first, so we can positively impact others.

  • But it’s not about you. We’re not sculptors working alone in a studio, chipping marble or molding clay. We aren’t solo performers. We work with and through others. Quite simply, our success is measured in what others achieve.

  • Purpose. At some point, we need to stop trying to make sense of 2020. Instead, we need to create a sense of purpose for 2021—an overarching “why” that will take us out of the wilderness and into a new light—and a new beginning. Purpose always precedes the first step.

  • Empathy. Given all that people have gone through, empathy rules the day. It’s all about meeting others where they are, to understand their experience. We used to say, “How are you?”; now it’s “how are you feeling?” But that’s not all. The more empathetic we are, the more we broaden our view. We see beyond our own perspective—through the lens of others.

  • Empower. 2020 tripped the circuit breakers; 2021 is the big reset. Change must bubble up from within the organization, not merely cascade down—because the next two years we’ll see more change than we’ve seen in the last 10. To paint tomorrow, people throughout the organization must be empowered to think. I’ll never forget the advice I received from a board member many years ago, when I was a new CEO: “As the leader, don’t tell people what to do—instead, tell them what to think about.”

  • Collective genius. It’s been said that the strength of a team is each individual member—and the strength of each individual member is the team. When teams are inclusive, and differences are not just tolerated but celebrated, they become more creative and innovative—and collective genius is born. Let’s create an ethos of inclusiveness in the New Year.

  • Shepherd. I’ve met a number of military leaders who led during periods of conflict, and many confided in me, “I’ve never lost a soldier”—revealing a deep mindset of humility and accountability. While most of us won’t face such life-or-death scenarios, we also need to make sure we don’t lose anyone. Think shepherd: occasionally in front, sometimes beside, but mostly behind.

  • Own the moment. When most people think about accountability, they immediately think about how accountable others are to them. But first, we need to examine how accountable we are to ourselves—for who we are and how we act. If we want to know how we’re doing, we only need to count the number of times we say, “I’m sorry”—in all its forms, including “That’s on me,” “That was the wrong call,” and “You were right.” That’s how we truly own the moment.

  • Be the message. Throughout 2020, we just tried to help people get through—one day to the next—by seeing the blue sky through a tiny opening in the clouds. Now it’s time for the clouds to part—and for people to believe they can punch right through the sky. That comes from inspiration—and it’s best done with stories. As Peter Guber, the Academy Award–winning producer and co-owner of four professional sports teams, once told me, “Leadership is storytelling in a way that becomes memorable and actionable.” And the leader IS the message.

In this New Year, may we stay resolute—to our resolutions. As radically human leaders, we enable others to exceed their potential and, in doing so, we all will collectively rise

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