Welcome to Leadership Series
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I stumbled across this quote the other day, and it caused me to pause and reflect immediately.
Looking back, my life seems to be one long obstacle course, with me as the chief obstacle.Jack Paar
Leading yourself is no easy task.
In fact, it’s a lifelong journey where you are constantly being outmatched by the toughest opponent you will ever face: you.
I am currently in a series titled Welcome to Leadership, where I explore how you can grow into the leader others need you to be.
I’ve already talked about the reality that you don’t know what you don’t know, and I’ve unpacked 5 character traits of great leaders.
Today, I’m talking about the most difficult responsibility you will ever have as a leader: leading yourself.
I was remarking in one of my company Slack channels the other day that there appears to be two very difficult things to get people to do (myself included):
- To do things in order of importance
- To continue doing things in order of importance
The first item is a combination of knowledge, wisdom and experience. It takes time and training to learn the next best thing to do.
The second item is all about self-discipline.
It’s the difference between a diet and a lifestyle change. In order to lead yourself, you need a lifestyle change. I’ll go ahead and warn you: it is uncomfortable.
Self-discipline is the price you pay to get into the arena of great leadership. There is no great leader that has not first learned how to master themselves.
At its core, self-discipline is doing the thing you ought to do, when you ought to do it, whether you like it or not. It’s the first lesson any leader should learn, yet it’s the last one to ever be fully learned.
I cannot overstate how incredibly difficult this is.
To illustrate, let’s talk about food.
If you ask, 99% of people will tell you that good eating habits are an important part of anyone’s lifestyle. And most would agree that for those in high-stress positions of leadership, it’s especially important.
The right selection and quantity of food has a profound impact on your physical and emotional well-being.
The answer seems simple: eat less sugar, avoid processed foods, cut down on simple carbs and don’t overeat.
Now, if I were to take the first example above – to do things in order of importance – I would probably choose to eat less sugar first, as it will have an immediate impact physically and emotionally. The impact may not be pleasant, but it will be substantial.
But, if I were to take the second example above – to continue doing things in order of importance – I would need to reduce my sugar intake for 3 months before it started to become part of a new lifestyle.
Real life confession: I ate an entire family pack of Double Stuf Oreos last month!
I know the right thing to do: eat less sugar. And yet I continue to do the wrong thing: eat more sugar.
It’s clear I have yet to become the master of my own soul. And if you are honest with yourself, you’ve yet to become your own either.
So what can we do?
A Process for Leading Yourself
I believe that total mastery over oneself is chasing after the wind. It will never happen in this life. James 3:1-13 would agree.
However, that doesn’t abdicate us from the pursuit of mastery over ourselves. You can change, and there are processes out there to help you do it.
I want to share two, and they come from two of my favorite books. The first is from Developing the Leader Within You by John Maxwell, and the second is from Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Who you are tomorrow is a function of what you are willing to experience today.
Big experiences today will produce a bigger person tomorrow. But big experiences aren’t sustainable. Take on too many and you’ll drown.
Small wins, however, accumulate over time to produce big results. I like the system John lays out in his book, Developing the Leader Within You. He puts together a 10-step process for accumulating small wins that lead to real progress. It looks like this:
- List 5 areas of your life that lack discipline.
- Place them in order of your priority for conquering them.
- Take them on, one at a time.
- Secure resources, such as books and audio, that will give you instruction and motivation to conquer each area.
- Ask a person who models the trait you want to possess to hold you accountable for it.
- Spend fifteen minutes each morning getting focused in order to get control of this weak area in your life.
- Do a 5 minute checkup on yourself at midday.
- Take 5 minutes in the evening to evaluate your progress.
- Allow 60 days to work on one area before you go to the next (I would recommend 90).
- Celebrate with the one who holds you accountable as you show continued success.
There are a few key points to highlight here:
- You may be frustrated by working on one thing at a time. Remember, self-discipline is about focus. You’ll get there, just not all at once.
- The gradual accumulation of self-discipline now decreases the time spent in steps 5-9 in the future. As you practice discipline, you become better at it, which accelerates mastery in the area of focus.
1% Better Every Day
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.James Clear
In general, you will only be as good as your systems allow you to be.
Operate in a bad system, and you will continually deliver poor results. Operate in a great system, and you will continually deliver outstanding results.
In Atomic Habits, James talks about the 4 Laws of Behavior Change:
- Make it obvious.
- Make it attractive.
- Make it easy.
- Make it satisfying.
He also talks about the Inversion of the 4 Laws of Behavior Change:
- Make it invisible.
- Make it unattractive.
- Make it difficult.
- Make it unsatisfying.
If we focus on getting 1% better every day, we compound our improvement over time. And the way to focus on getting 1% better every day is to build good habits and break bad ones.
Using the systems above, we can identify the bad habits we want to break (such as eating sugary foods) and work on the good habits we want to build (such as eating more fruits).
Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
I don’t know if I would go that far, but I do believe the unexamined life is left wanting.
You can’t lead yourself without reflecting on where you’ve been, where you are now and where you want to go.
Those that are able to face the brutal facts about their current reality are those that are able to experience the biggest breakthroughs.
Ask yourself the hard questions:
- Why am I doing this?
- Is this the best use of my time?
- Have I explored all options?
- Where did I fall short and why?
- How do I not make this mistake again?
- Where am I responsible for this outcome?
Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’ve got it figured out.
The moment you do is the precise moment you begin to slip into pleasing others instead of leading yourself.
Lead Yourself, Lead Others
It should be clear, but in case it isn’t: you must be able to lead yourself in order to lead others.
There is no other way.
This has been difficult to write because I know I fall short in so many areas. But, I’m not deterred.
I’m motivated more than ever to lead myself well, because I know that when I get better, everyone around me does too. I believe the same for you!
I hope you’ve found a lot of value from this series. If you’ve enjoyed this content, please share it with others. You can quickly share on social media using the buttons available in the article, or you can email the content to a friend or colleague.
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To building better leaders,
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