Leader, Know Thy Self

As an executive coach, I enjoy reading what others have to say about leadership: leadership styles, what it take so to be a leader, the (insert #) most important leadership traits, etc.  If you were to try and take all the various musing on what a great leader should be as truth, it seems to me that the only thing you would come away with is a strong sense of inadequacy. Those that manage just a few people all the way up to CEOs of large enterprises ask themselves such questions as, “Did I show enough empathy in my conversation with Mary this morning?”  “Am I “visionary” enough?”  “Are they following me because they respect me, or because they fear me?”

I advise my clients to read all they can about leadership, but to not get caught up in emulation at any cost.  I believe that the single most critical thing about being a leader is to know thy self.  We are all different, and we all have our leadership strengths and our challenges.  We are different at our core, at the level of our genetic heritage, the way our brains are wired, our appearance, our nature.  We are also different in our experiences, our backgrounds, our family systems, our education, our nurture.

I could no sooner be a leader in the style of Winston Churchill than I could be an Olympic gold medalist.  However, if I posses self-awareness, I can be aware when a leadership situation plays to my strength, or if the situation will be a challenge for me.  If the circumstance requires a style that is powerful for me, I can take action with confidence.  If the style required will be a challenge to me, I have two choices.

The first is to focus on what is required in the situation to see if I can shift to the mode required.  The answers to two questions will tell me if I can make this shift: do I have the knowledge of what is needed, and do I have the energy and capacity to stretch to that less than familiar role?

If the answer to either of these two questions is “No”, then my remaining choice is to decide who does have the power to do what is necessary under the circumstances.  This can be a hard thing for a leader to do: recognize that someone else may need to take the lead on a particular initiative or crisis.  However, the best leaders are those that mentor others to be leaders themselves without requiring the acolyte to be a replica of the boss.

5-D Leadership is one of the best books on this subject.  Written by Scott Campbell and Ellen Samiec, the examples of leadership success and failure as a result of self-awareness, or the lack thereof, are fascinating.

One of my favorite aphorisms is, “You cannot be someone you are not until you know who you are.”  Truer words, in my opinion, were never spoken.  In future writings, I will explore a method to gain self-awareness.

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