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Lead yourself first



Each of us has powerful latent leadership capabilities.

You may be leading already or thinking about stepping up to lead some people or projects. Great! But before you can presume to lead others effectively, you should build a solid foundation. First, you need to lead yourself.

Self-leadership starts with having a clear sense of personal purpose. Your purpose is your reason for being, what gives your life meaning and significance. It answers: Why am I here? It’s not about what you do; rather, it’s about why you do it. Your purpose statement should be short, authentic, long-lasting and personally inspiring.

When you have a clear sense of purpose, your leadership rests on a powerful foundation and you work with greater integrity, energy and fulfillment. For example, Bob’s purpose is to “make the world a better place.” Gregg’s is to “help people lead good lives.”

Personal values are those core principles that are most important to you. Think about what you strongly believe in and stand for, your convictions. (For example, they might be words like relationships, achievement, respect, integrity, learning, stewardship, courage, or family.) Narrow down your list to your top three to six values and explain further (why each is important to you) in a short phrase or sentence.

In our experience, many people don’t take the time to identify their personal values. Then, when they are confronted with a difficult dilemma, and whatever choice they make has some negative consequences, they are subject to the emotions and pressures of the moment. That’s dangerous territory.

(Check out this Personal Values Exercise to help you discover your personal values. We encourage you to write down, share and review your personal values often.)

Without a clear understanding of your personal purpose and values, you have a weak moral compass that will not provide the necessary guidance and direction, and you may make poor choices with long-lasting consequences. Your personal purpose and values serve as a grounding force when things are difficult. Excellent leaders have done this inner work of leadership and map how their personal purpose and values relate to their organization’s purpose and values. They work to align them.

There is great value in making your personal purpose and values explicit and communicating them to others (such as family, friends, mentors, and trusted colleagues), because others can help hold you accountable for your behavior and progress in pursuing your purpose.

Next reexamine your mindset. Is your self-talk negative or disempowering, with comments like “If only they would…“ or “I’m only a (fill in the blank with ‘engineer,’ ‘associate,’ or ‘clerk’)”? Are you cynical and sarcastic, muttering under your breath at the dysfunctional practices of the organization? Few people follow the naysayers and cynics.

Confront your negative attitudes and reframe your thinking. Consider volunteering to address the issues that bother you, thereby becoming part of the solution and leading by example.

To be an effective leader, you need to sincerely believe in the capabilities of others. Show your colleagues by your words and actions that you believe in, respect, and truly care about them.

Next consider why you want to lead. Is it for status, control, or power? Do you want to get back at the current leaders for some slight or mistreatment? Is it because you want a prestigious title, more money, or the perks of management? All those reasons will undermine your leadership because they are ego-driven. In the words of Chuck Wachendorfer, partner and COO of Think2Perform:

“My ego is not my amigo.”

People sense selfish reasons for leading and withhold their trust and commitment. Your potential to lead is crippled when people don’t trust you. Leadership is all about serving others and helping them to get to a better place—a worthy quest—so they willingly follow and commit to the shared purpose, values, and vision of the organization or group.

Do you have the courage to be open and vulnerable, being okay with not having all the answers and not having everything under your control? Your ability to admit mistakes takes guts but goes a long way toward setting an example and getting people to open up and take risks that build knowledge, skills, character, and trust.

Core Concept: Before you can presume to lead others well, you must lead yourself first.

Practical Applications:

  • Have you written down your personal purpose and values?
  • Have you confronted your negative self-talk and reframed it into a positive mindset?
  • Do you sincerely believe in the capabilities of people?
  • Do you have good reasons to lead that are not self-serving?
  • Do you have the courage to be vulnerable and open?

When you answer these questions affirmatively, you are ready to lead. Now go for it!

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Bob and Gregg Vanourek

Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, current and former Colorado residents, are co-authors of "Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations," a 2013 International Book Awards winner. Bob is the former CEO of five companies and was recently designated as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior 2013. Gregg has co-authored three books and teaches entrepreneurship at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. Web: http://triplecrownleadership.com/ Twitter: @TripleCrownLead

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