Monday, January 20, 2020

Before You Lead Others, Learn to Lead Yourself by Embracing Eight Core Principles

What passes for leadership guidance often comes in the form of lists of what you should and shouldn’t do. Add to them a modest sprinkling of desirable leadership skills, attitudes, and aptitudes. Then, relentlessly strive to be “authentic” and “empathetic” Voila! You’re a leader. 

I can’t argue with this collective wisdom. You can’t go wrong heeding any of it. But it misses the point.  

Aspiring leaders need to embrace core principles essential for a healthy sense of self. You learn to lead yourself in specific, tangible ways first. Then, you can lead others. 

I urge you to embrace these eight core principles to achieve self-leadership. 

1. Get clear about what you can control and change. I've lost track of the hours I've spent trying to change other people. For example, consider my first boss. He micromanaged me. Clearly, I argued, he was blind to my obvious talent and ability. He needed to change! I deserved better! I told him how I felt, again and again. I expected him to change. He didn’t. Likewise, I’ve expressed confusion and frustration when applying for a mortgage loan. Still, my lender won’t change its paperwork based on my feedback.

2. If you cannot control or change something, give up trying to do so. Time and energy attempting to change something that cannot be changed is pointless. I’ve found it more productive to direct my energies where I can at least influence what’s going on. More importantly, if I'm so busy trying to change people, I'm not working on changing myself. My attitude and behavior are the only things in this world I can control.

3. Know what angers or negatively triggers you. Every day we encounter people, places, circumstances, and processes. If we’re fortunate, we feel positive about most of them. But some will trigger darker thoughts. On our worst days, we respond to them negatively, perhaps inappropriately. I know I have done so, and it hurts me. That’s why I strive to be sensitive to the ongoing flow of developments in all aspects of my life. I know I’m susceptible to “stinking thinking,” and behaviors that go with it.

4. Accept responsibility for what negatively triggers you. You choose what triggers you. No one makes you feel a certain way. Likewise, you can choose how you respond. No one else can.

5. Identify your part in the trigger, and do what you can to address it. You recognize your part in emotions and feelings when you accept responsibility for them. That is, somehow, in some way, you made possible the circumstances that led to your upset. They might stem from a childhood experience. Perhaps they reflect an unmet expectation or need. That’s not to say all anger is unjustified. Yet only by embracing your responsibility for your anger can you address its underlying causes. Only then can you change your response.

6. Admit you’re wrong as often and quickly as possible. As much as I’d like to think I’m right most of the time, I’m often wrong. I’ve mixed up dates. I’ve gotten the facts wrong on a particular situation. Sometimes I stay stuck in why I was wrong. Other times, I question whether or not I was responsible for being wrong. These responses only prolong the agony. I need to see the error of my ways quickly, and move on.

7. Apologize when you’re wrong, without explanation or qualifications. To paraphrase the Elton John song, “I’m sorry” seems to be the hardest words to say. Why? Because you admit a lapse in judgement or a mistake. You acknowledge something you’ve done or said has hurt someone. You proclaim your imperfection. What happens as a result? First, in our zeal, we apologize for foibles real and imagined, minor and major. In addition, we qualify or explain to our apologies. In both instances, we undermine the intent of the original apology. The recipient wonders—rightfully so—whether the apology is sincere.When you apologize, simply say, “I’m sorry.” You could add a brief explanation, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” But that’s it. Don’t add anything else. Apologize when you’ve clearly hurt someone. Only then. If you’re not sure about whether your words or actions hurt someone, ask.

8. Cultivate a dynamic sense of gratitude. Maintaining a list of what we’re grateful for challenges us to pause to take stock of good things in our lives. That's especially critical when we feel overwhelmed by negativity. Yet we can fall into dreadful routines as we compile our lists. It becomes another thing to get done. Let’s say this morning I write down five things for which I’m grateful. The next day I come up with five more things. The process repeats until I’ve run out of things to note. I end up repeating myself. My ardor for the exercise diminishes.

Consider instead the concept of dynamic gratitude. It’s an in the moment, 24 hours a day, /7 day a week commitment. It means we remain present and aware from moment to moment about what’s happening in our lives.

Dynamic gratitude means we note what’s good. We isolate the beauty, joy, and wonder. We relish the bounty that makes our lives worth living.

That said, pain, fear, and loss are unavoidable. Yet I know these negative life experiences will pass. The next moment, and the moment after that, will be different. I don’t have to stay stuck in ingratitude—or gratitude—for long. Everything will change, including my perspective. 

Indeed, embracing these principles takes effort. It’s difficult to change longstanding patterns of thinking and behavior. I know that all too well. Yet if we’re truly meant to lead, we must first transform ourselves.  

(Originally published in the January 2020 edition of Public Relations Strategies and Tactics. See it here.) 

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