There are probably as many ways of being a leader as there are types of leaders. Here are three tips that work for me.
I have not always been known as a “Gets it done with excellence” person. I used to be mostly referred to as a “He seems like a good kid” person. Over my career, I have built a reputation as a strategic thinker and considerate leader who is fair, earns respect by maintaining a high level of integrity, and delivers results. (Of course, some people think I am an arrogant jerk with a bloated ego but I will never win everyone over… and that’s okay). Here are three things I know have helped me build character and become both a better person and a better leader over the course of my career:
1. Knowledge. Expanding my knowledge by studying the works of great thinkers, philosophers, and artists has easily had the most profound impact on me. The best way I know to do that is through reading. Reading forces me to slow down and think at a pace where I can pause, reflect, and process information in real-time.
The power of books might sound lofty to trashy horror and romance aficionados but I will say it does not really matter what you read as long as what you read challenges what you think about and how you think about it.
If you do not enjoy combing through boring books about entrepreneurship and self-help stories written by great leaders (who are not necessarily great writers), then comic books are great reading material! Learn about leadership by reading about heroes and villains, and thinking through their moral quandaries. Or read books by famous sports coaches if you enjoy sports. Just read something that offers more than a brainless story (those are fine, too, just not for self-development unless you are a very intuitive reader).
2. Humility. It took me a long time to realize I do not have to have all the answers and, in fact, if I think I am the smartest person in the room, then I need to find a different room.
If I am not surrounded by people who are smarter than me and see things I can not see, I have a problem. I am not being challenged, my thinking muscles are not being exercised, and my perceptions are going unquestioned. It feels good to be the top dog but it does not help me stay on top.
To be fair, I never hope to be the dumbest person in the room either because that means I am not contributing value or understanding the people around me. I also do not have to necessarily surround myself with people who disagree with me. Just because there is disagreement does not mean there is a contribution to intellect.
I want to be around people who see clearer, further, or from different angles and know how to communicate respectfully, with patience, warmth, and by drawing logical conclusions. That way, we all learn to think better, and hopefully be better.
3. Trust. Before I could trust myself to lead others, I had to learn to trust myself. In other words, if I could not rely on myself to do what I said I would do by the time I said I would do it, then how could I expect others to keep their commitments to me?
I developed my “integrity” muscle, as it were, by making and keeping promises to myself. Over and over, if I told myself I would do something (like, say, wake up when my alarm went off without hitting the “snooze” button even once–just get up and go), then I would practice keeping that commitment until I consistently had it right. Over time, I could trust myself to do whatever I agreed to do with myself (like wake up before my alarm clock goes off–I can trust myself to do that now, just by reminding myself to wake up before X time).
The trick, after that, is to keep expanding the trust I have earned with myself, and then eventually, with my commitments to others (until they realize when I say I will do something it is as good as done), and finally by expecting their commitments to me to have equal integrity. No one wants to be less than their best, but until they see and believe they can transform (by watching you go first) they may not realize there is a higher standard to hold themselves to. In other words, lead by example, and expect those you are leading to do the same.
Knowledge, Humility, and Trust help me continue to develop myself and, I assert, are key elements among the most trusted and respected leaders. If you want to grow as a person or as a leader, I recommend starting there. Grab a book, read one page a week if that is all you can commit to now. But make that commitment to yourself and keep it. Then agree to do a little more with yourself. Then expand keeping your commitments with others until they trust your word the way they trust the law of gravity. It never fails them. Then, and only then, ask for that commitment back. Actually, you will probably never have to ask. Everybody tries to be like their hero.