Leadership intrigues us. It captures our attention and has a way of consuming large portions of our time, energy and even our day-to-day conversations. Whether we are critiquing those who lead us, or we are ourselves seeking to lead, leadership is a substantial component of our very existence. This may be due to the fact that we are simply surrounded by it – it is evident in our homes, within our communities, on the job and it is most apparent in the hallowed chambers of our Parliament. Unfortunately, within each of these contexts, our perspective on leadership tends to be outward-facing or external in nature.
We often view leadership in terms of other people and the positions they hold or the power they wield. In fact, we tend to identify leaders by the titles they have, the possessions they own or the perks they enjoy. The leader is the person at the front – the one who speaks the loudest, who makes all the decisions and who controls everything; including us and what happens to us. Even when most people think of assuming leadership, they usually think in terms of being the ‘boss’ and having others do what they say, when they say and how they said it.
I am sure that this outward-facing perspective on leadership resonates with many, but I wish to offer another view, one that is more aligned with what leadership ought to be rather than what we have known it to be. Leadership starts within the individual and all of us are leaders in our own right. With or without an official title, I am a leader. With or without a huge following, you are a leader. Despite not having the fanciest car, the biggest house, the best office, the largest bank account, the admiration of thousands, we are still leaders. We are leaders when we understand that leadership begins with each of us – it starts with me.
When we strip away these external indicators of leadership, we unearth the reality of what leadership should truly be about. Leadership, at its core, must be personal and it should emanate from the individual’s value system and be grounded in an appreciation for personal accountability. A personally accountable individual is one who takes ownership or full responsibility for his or her actions, behaviours and thoughts – not relinquishing such to others who are deemed to be the ‘leader’. This level of ownership means that I no longer look to or blame others for what happens around or to me, but I see where I can think differently, act differently or respond differently regardless of the situation.
When we become personally accountable, we understand that our lives are a function of the choices that we make; we can choose to be positive or negative, happy or sad, effective or ineffective. Too many of us hold the view that we are casual bystanders in our lives – watching helplessly from the side line and often simply reacting as each new challenge or situation presents itself to us. This is not how true leaders view their lives. On the contrary, leaders are proactive and take ownership of their decisions and responses to life’s situations. This is what empowers every human being to be a leader and it is from these internal embers that the flame of true leadership grows.
So how do we apply this knowledge to our lives? It commences with an honest evaluation of ourselves – we must identify those areas in our lives where we can be more personally accountable and proactive. This inward-facing process can be described as self-reflection and it is critical to us being able to become more self-aware.
There are many persons who hold the external emblems of leadership but who lack an understanding of themselves – their emotions, their values and even their weaknesses. Honest self-reflection allows us to identify those aspects of our lives that may require improvement as they have the potential to impact negatively on others.
After we have self-reflected, another helpful tool in becoming a true leader is to invite others to evaluate us. When we intentionally seek out the feedback of those close to us on how our actions and behaviours are perceived by them, we can gain valuable and deep insights into ourselves. Taking this step requires tremendous confidence in those with whom the responsibility to evaluate is given and it will demonstrate our strong desire to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Upon receiving the perspectives shared, we must make every effort to combine them with the information garnered through our self-reflection and seek to make all necessary adjustments towards becoming the individual leader we need to be.
In closing, we must recognize that each of us have within us the potential to be a great leader. Our appreciation of this fact must not be skewed by a view of leadership as that which exists only in the realm of the external and highly glamourized spotlight. It starts with each individual becoming personally accountable for his or her own actions or inactions – recognizing that we are not mere passengers in life but that we have the power to choose the way we think, act and respond to the various situations which confront each of us daily. Through self-reflection and inviting others to share their perspectives on us as human beings, we strengthen ourselves internally and we ultimately become stronger personal leaders who can then impact positively on the world around us. This is summed up powerfully in the words of noted business leader Jack Welch: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”