What Is Personal Leadership To You?
I coach for personal leadership. I work with people who want to be leaders in their own lives.
Leaders are those who know where they are going and who are on a path that will take them there. Where they are going inspires them, it gets them out of bed in the morning, it lights up their days, and it keeps them going when the going gets really crappy. People who are leaders in their own lives, bring others with them—friends, family, and colleagues become engaged and excited about where the leader is going and what they want to accomplish.
If your life feels rudderless; if the winds of circumstance blow you capriciously about; if your life feels dead, drab, dull; or if you are ready for new projects, new challenges, and to reach for a higher bar but don’t know what the project or challenge is—bringing leadership to your life will make a difference.
“If you don’t know where you are going,
you’ll end up someplace else.” Yogi Berra
Those of us who are powerful personal leaders live lives that bring them joy or satisfaction or meaning or contentment. They live hand-crafted lives shaped to their own design.
Leadership v. management
Let me make a quick distinction between leadership and management as the two terms are frequently confused.
Management is the efficient and productive use of resources to achieve a specified outcome. How to turn wood, graphite, and rubber into a pencil, for example. Managers are concerned with inputs, processes, and outputs. The question a manager asks is how can I produce this outcome given these resources?
Leaders, on the other hand, are not concerned with outputs; they are concerned with vision. They point to the horizon and say this is where we are going and this is why it’s important. The question a leader asks is what is the right direction?
Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing.
In your own life, balancing your checkbook, cooking dinner and, planning the next vacation are management tasks.
Determining your career, who to marry, what values to live by, who you want to “be” in the world (generous, gracious, and loving, for example, or avaricious, resentful, and self-involved) are leadership tasks.
Clearly, both management and leadership tasks are important to a well-lived life. Good management without leadership risks a boring unfulfilled life, racked by questions such as: Why am I here? What’s the point of it all? Why aren’t I happy?
A well-led but poorly managed life risks overdrawn bank accounts, projects envisioned but never accomplished friends who are ticked off at you because you never show up on time and trash that’s not taken out the day the trash truck comes by. The questions that plague leaders who can’t manage their lives are: Why can’t I get it together? Or more commonly, since we tend to blame others, why is the world against me? Why don’t things turn out for me? Why can’t that damn trash truck wait for a couple more minutes?
Management out-clamors leadership
Management tasks tend to push leadership tasks to the side. You need to shop for groceries, you need to get the kids off to school, you need to do the laundry. Management tasks clamor for your attention. There are immediate real-world consequences if you don’t feed your kids or pay the light bill.
Leadership tasks aren’t as apparent, aren’t as urgent, and aren’t as easily accomplished. Most of us can open a can of beans to feed the kids, but it’s a lot more difficult to decide what to do with your life. Even if you could answer the question—what should I do with my life?—hungry kids or termites in floor joists will out-clamor it. When do we, in our busy over-committed lives, have time for the quiet reflection such a question demands?
But sometimes we need to do the hard things first. If you are not making leadership decisions, it means that your attention is likely on the wrong things. If you are not happy, if you are not making the money you would like to be making, if you are stuck in your job and promotions pass you by—consider that you are not attending to your mission in life. You are not being a personal leader.
Most of my clients come to me because they are stuck. They have achieved many things in their lives, but their lives now have become dull and empty of meaning. They may not have a personal vision or they have a vision but are unable to make it happen. Vision and action—personal leadership requires both.
How do you build personal leadership? It’s tough because it generally means stepping outside of ourselves selves and how do we do that? It means doing things outside of our comfort zone and that can be scary. It means new ways of thinking and how do we think newly? It means practicing to master all these new things and who has time for that?
It helps to have a good coach. When I work with a client, I start by building a solid foundation on which personal leadership must rest. The foundation consists of these four areas:
We, humans, engage the world with both learned and built-in cognitive biases. These biases cloud how we see ourselves and the world and cause us to take actions that trip us up or actively sabotage us. Life becomes like walking through a hall of mirrors—except you don’t know about the mirrors, you think what you are seeing is reality—the world as it actually is.
Clarifying your thinking then requires distinguishing the mirrors and replacing them with ones that don’t distort reality—or distort reality in more productive ways. This task can be difficult and painful because we tend to be very attached to our mirrors, but the energy and freedom we experience when we are seeing clearly are liberating.
Master new tools
Tools are techniques or cognitive structures that we use to engage the world. Some tools are simple and just subtly change the way we relate to circumstances; others require a lifetime to master but can massively boost our satisfaction with life. An example of the former is changing our use of “but” to “and.” From “yes, but” to “yes, and.” Try it and see if it changes your experience working with other people.
A more difficult tool to master was one proposed by the Greek Stoics 2,500 years ago. To develop the capability to choose how we respond to anything that happens to us. No more “you made me mad” or “I’m bummed because it rained on my parade” or fighting with your spouse because they’re not doing it your way. You get to choose, say, peace instead of anger, joy instead of disappointment, and laughter instead of a fight.
There are hundreds of tools, but just a handful that are truly life-changing. Mastering them will add to your capacity to engage the world. Things that were once terrifying are now doable; standing arguments now melt away; your ability to assert yourself now becomes second nature.
Risk or vulnerabilities
Personal leadership is scary; it requires you to take risks—emotional, physical, financial, spiritual. Leadership entails risks because you are leaving where you are and venturing into unknown territory. If we don’t accept the risks, we’ll be forever locked down in our status quo.
Leadership requires looking at risk clearly. Too often we are stopped by risks that are not seriously threatening; that won’t land us in the E.R. or homeless on the streets. The risk of rejection, failure, looking foolish can stop us, but they are just uncomfortable feelings—would you want to mortgage your future just because somebody might turn you down and make you feel bad?
Practice: build the muscle
Not much to say here—you’ve got to practice. You’ve got to practice the tools, practice taking risks, and practice being a leader. Start small and work up. Whenever you get stopped, take one step further.
You may be wondering where “vision” is in the four tasks above—and you’re right, it’s not there. These four tasks lay the foundation on which to create your vision. It’s difficult to craft a vision if cognitive biases, dysfunctional tools, or risk avoidance still trip you up.
How we create a vision on this foundation is the subject of a future essay. For now, understand that personal leadership—and the ability to deliver on it—rests on a foundation of clarity, powerful tools, courage, and lots of practice.
We humans get in our own way. Nothing stops us more than our own noes and our own confused thinking. If you’d like to bust through your noes and straighten out your thinking—if you are ready to bring some personal leadership into your life and start living a life that challenges and excites you—let’s chat. Find me here.
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