Leadership is generally considered to be about other people, right? After all, how can you be a leader if there’s no one there to follow? Consequently, most philosophies of leadership highlight how we show up in relationship to the people we are supposed to lead. They tell us how to have integrity, set a good example, direct with authority and cast a compelling vision. I would agree with every single one of those items as crucial components for a list of good leadership qualities. There’s something that must come first, however. I call it self mastery.
Before we can lead people, we must be able to “lead” ourselves. Have you ever purchased a piece of exercise equipment or a membership to a health club, and then never used it? Have you had a New Year’s Resolution that you’ve declared to the world—whether it was to lose weight or quit smoking or give up desserts—only to have broken it before Ground Hog Day? What does that say about you as a leader? People don’t pay attention to what we say as much as they notice what we do. If you can’t lead yourself to the gym every day, you might not have a lot of credibility when it comes to leading your team to success.
Self mastery is a crucial first component to leadership. Having the awareness to see ourselves as others see us, and to act in alignment with our goals instead of our whims, is a hallmark of self mastery. In order to master ourselves, we have to learn aspects of emotional intelligence, courageous communication, and radical self-care.
Let’s start with emotional intelligence. There are four key components to emotional intelligence, and two of them have to do with how well we understand and manage our own emotions. Most of us can relate to the experience of dealing with a grown man or woman who is acting like a 12-year-old. We have probably had the experience of BEING that man or woman, too. We don’t always recognize our inappropriate behavior, or if we do, we are so hijacked by our emotions that we can’t turn back our tantrum is set in motion. This lack of self awareness and self management undermine our leadership abilities. It’s hard to build trust with people if we are loose emotional cannons, and people can be unwilling to follow us if they don’t believe we have the emotional stability to see things through on a project.
The second component to self mastery is courageous communication. Most of us communicate by “going along to get along.” We’ve all told that little fib, like complimenting a co-worker on their new hairstyle when it looks atrocious, or laughing politely at the boss’s un-funny joke. When it comes to big things, however, true leaders tell the truth, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard. Telling the truth doesn’t have to be unkind. As a matter of fact, I would argue that telling the truth is far kinder than allowing people to think things are fine when they are not. Being direct, albeit kind, breeds trust and allows people to know where they stand with you.
Courageous communication is a two-way street. Self mastery means being able to hear difficult information without reacting inappropriately (reference the previous paragraph on self management). If a member of your staff can deliver bad news without being afraid that you’ll fly off the handle or retaliate, it builds a foundation for open and authentic communication that leads to more productive problem solving and greater clarity of goals and initiatives. Learn how to both speak and hear bad news. It’s a crucial part of leadership.
Finally, self mastery entails radical self care. There’s something I’ve always found odd in our culture. We tend to glorify leaders who run themselves into the ground, don’t get enough sleep, live on caffeine and have no personal life. This is not only unhealthy but unproductive. Leaders cannot be creative problem solvers, compassionate coaches, or visionary leaders when they are sleep-deprived, distracted with personal strife, and overwhelmed with life’s tasks. Putting yourself first is far from selfish. It may be the most self-less thing you can do for your leadership.
So before you start to worry about your teams, your company, and the people in your charge, worry about yourself. Like the old cliché from the airlines, you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help anyone else. If you want to be an audacious leader and have brilliant ideas, it has to start with you.