Leadership Development Lessons from Great Leaders
The best leaders we’ve worked with have realized that it’s important to learn to lead themselves before they lead others. How do they learn to lead themselves? They begin by understanding themselves—their strengths and weaknesses, quirks and inherent tendencies, personal history, all of it. While there is an entire industry built around personal growth and development, the bottom line is that knowing yourself generally means having the guts to take an honest look at yourself—examining your life (not just your business career) and learning from your past experiences. It’s not always easy, but the good leaders know it’s very important.
No person or leader is perfect—far from it. As the late, great poet Stanley Kunitz put it: The best people I know are inadequate and unashamed. Everyone has inadequacies, weaknesses, unaddressed issues, blind spots—places where the internal terrain is more like quicksand than solid ground. We are all inadequate, missing key skills, or still revisiting painful failures—from a broken marriage to a botched business plan. We all fail sometimes, and if you have not, then most likely you didn’t push hard enough.
Acknowledging these failures doesn’t necessarily mean taking a deep dive into psychoanalysis. But it does require doing some assessment of yourself and taking a hard look in the mirror—then being able to accept what you see. Great leaders we’ve worked with acknowledge their fallibility and mistakes. This honesty actually energizes most organizations because people come to the realization that like us, our leader isn’t perfect, so maybe I can lead.
The great leaders we’ve worked with have the guts to admit that they are not perfect, that they could be part of the problem. By knowing themselves, good and bad, and admitting their flaws, they learn what they need to do to become better leaders—the kind that can energize, mobilize, and drive an organization and business.
Ask Yourself the Hard Questions
Knowing yourself means really understanding how you work, play, and live.
How you think and learn. Your innate tendencies and biases. Do you tend to make quick judgments? Do you hold grudges? Do you have trouble trusting people? Are you less likely to listen to co-workers who are younger or from different backgrounds than you, or who just don’t fit your mold? What are your blind spots? Are you exhibiting behaviors that you think are effective, but actually have the opposite effect?
These are not easy questions to answer. They require a degree of self-reflection and honesty that goes beyond what most cultures generally encourage.
Self-knowledge means questioning your actions and behaviors to see if they align with actions that will help you, your team, and your organization achieve its goals and win, as the legendary Jack Welch wrote in Winning. You have to know your story and know yourself—and have some trusted advisors.
Listen to Your Self-Critic
A good leader needs a healthy self-critic—one that’s consistent, truthful, constructive, optimistic, and energized—instead of overly critical or downright cruel. The extraordinary leaders I’ve been fortunate to work with listen to their self-critic—sometimes too often, and other times not enough. You wouldn’t be leading if you weren’t, at some level, good at self-criticism. You can’t let the self-critic run your life, but you can’t shut it out.
We often have to remind executives to discern what’s valuable about what their inner critic is saying. Think of it like this. You get a lot of feedback in the world—from your family, friends, co-workers, and others. What do you usually do with it? You take the observations that seem valuable, that align with others’ comments and your own truth—and disregard the rest. But if you keep hearing the same thing over and over, you pay attention to it. Your self-critic is just another source of feedback for winning to achieving your goals, the kind of feedback that great leaders use every day—at work and in their lives. Ideally, the coaching and feedback are helpful and encouraging—and looking toward the future, not revisiting the past.
Seek the Honest Truth
In the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Emperor’s New Clothes it takes a brave young boy to tell the harsh truth: The emperor isn’t wearing anything at all. Finding these trusted confidantes—both inside and outside of your organization—becomes even more important as people move higher up in the organization. Very few people will accept the risks that come with being a truth-teller to C-level executives (the organizational equivalent of emperors).
This is an excerpt from The Core 4: Harness Four Core Business Drivers to Accelerate Your Organization.