Following the Leader

You may be leading in theory, and with positional power, but, in actuality, if they’re not following whom are you leading? Have you ever been walking along with a friend or family member, blithely chattering away, only to discover that you lost them several feet back? You’d been talking to yourself for at least two or three sentences and didn’t even notice (although everyone else did!). A classic private life example of leading without followers!

You can’t lead if they won’t follow. This truth applies in all sorts of scenarios, whether you’re an official leader in your workplace, or whether it’s a matter of personal leadership through your charismatic, wise and/or influential personality. This also applies when leading ourselves to renewed commitment to leadership attitudes and behaviours to which we aspire. You can’t lead yourself on to new (or renewed) leadership demonstrations if you won’t follow your own advice or inner wisdom about how to get there. You can’t move your personal or professional life forward if you won’t follow your own intuition and rules for doing so. Understanding this concept intellectually, is one thing, but doing something about it–applying it–is often another. And, “If you know it and you don’t do it, you don’t know it because…if you really knew it…wouldn’t you do it?”…whatever “it” is. It’s like dieting–most people understand the basics of dieting: eat right, exercise, three squares a day, two healthy snacks, good rest, etc., but so many of us, in the end, just don’t bother effectively applying what we say we know, and then we fail.

It’s the end of June again–exams and graduations everywhere! What a fabulous time for renewal…for taking a “fitness” exam on your self-leadership demonstrations. When it comes to self-leadership, in which ways do you continue to do well? In which categories could you improve? You’re the one who gets to assess and say what’s to be done. You can’t make them into something you’re not. All leadership starts with self-leadership, so here are four suggestions for kicking-off your summer, 2004 inventory of self-leadership demonstrations, and graduating those terrific skills of yours to new levels.

Graduate your self-leadership competencies by:

1. Managing your stress levels with greater vigilance: Be aware. Are you exhibiting classic signs of stress, yet insist on being a “tough guy” by ignoring them and pushing through like a trooper? I always know when my stress is peaking because I’ll start forgetting all sorts of things with greater frequency…even the obvious things, like the keys left in the door, glasses on my head, the names of my kids (just kidding about these two but you know what I mean), or walking into a room to do something and forgetting my purpose (please tell me I’m not the only one!). Watch out for symptoms like heightened forgetfulness, chronic fatigue, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, increased colds, headaches or lower back pain, antisocial behaviour (just can’t stand the thought of being around colleagues or clients/customers you usually love working with), mood swings, etc. . All of these signs could be your body’s way of telling you to slow down and relax because you’re overstressed. Gain control wherever you can (although we really know that, even at the best of times, we only have about 15% control over anything that’s going on in our life!). Even if it’s only in one or two seemingly unimportant ways, find ways to take charge of at least some of your daily workplace stressors.

2. Going it alone once in a while: Fly solo. Make a date with yourself, “no more joiners” style. This is what author Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, pages 18-21) calls your “artist date”. “An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on the artist date but you and your inner artist…that means no lovers, friends spouses, children-no taggers-of any stripe. If you think this sounds stupid or that you will never be able to afford the time, identify that reaction as resistance. You cannot afford not to find time for artist dates.” How about purposefully sitting with a bunch of “strangers” the next time you attend a professional development conference. Or, the next time you’re traveling on business, go down to the fine dining room all by your lonesome and enjoy your own company (sans book or newspaper), rather than barricading yourself in your hotel room, ordering room service. In private life, take yourself out–alone–to see that movie you’ve been talking about (the one that no one else you know wants to see). Going it alone some of the time can be very empowering and inspire greater confidence and productivity. You may end up inspiring others to do the very same!

3. Brainstorming a list of your leadership qualities: Keep an “Specific examples of my leadership demonstrations” journal for at least one week. At the close of each day (or, if you have the time throughout the day) jot down your examples. List all of the things you said (or didn’t say), all of the attitudes you shared (or didn’t) and all of the behaviours you exhibited (or didn’t) which demonstrated to yourself and for others, your fine leadership qualities. Choosing not to say, think or act out certain feelings–having your brain three seconds ahead of your actions or mouth–can be just as much an illustration of fine leadership as the positive and active demonstrations you exhibit. Note which situations yank your chain and which fill you with pride, when it comes to your own thoughts and behaviours. Observe your strengths and your weaknesses; play to your strengths and manage your “weaknesses” to do your part at keeping workplace communications open and flowing.

4. Being someone else for a day–take a holiday from of your comfort zone (knowing that, if you really must, you can return). Sooner or later, most organizations must reinvent themselves or suffer a natural business death. At first, the start-up phase of a business is a steep gradient and very demanding in terms of time, money, materials and staff. Then, with systems in place, as well as defined policies and procedures, a business can hum along for years at a steady pace. Eventually technology, attitudes, politics, etc. will change, causing the organization to realize it must make changes, too, or suffer the possibility of dying or becoming severely disabled (just ask Eatons, a now defunct, grand Canadian Department store for over 100 years). Organizations that know when the time has come for reinventing themselves live on. It’s the same with people, whether or not they are in positions of professional leadership. Most everyone, sooner or later, comes to that potentially paralyzing fork in the road–the choice between staying in one’s comfort zone and sleep walking through the rest of their professional days, or daring to “tinker under the hood” and professionally reinvent themselves. This is the moment where one must rely heavily on their active self-leadership skills to pull through with satisfaction and reward. Every now and then, take the road that scares the heck out of you…that takes you way out of “comfort territory”. Be someone else for just one day–see how it may fit you, after all. If you are always the first to jump in or speak up, etc., next time, hold back. If you are always the last to share your opinion or ideas, next time speak up. If you are always one of those people who sits at the back of the room at meetings, workshops or conferences (or even at weddings!), get over it and move up…not to the second or third row…the very first one, so that there is nothing between you and the “action“… and experience the difference. I dare you. If you are in a position of official leadership in the workplace, consider volunteering for a non-leadership/frontline position with a professional or community organization to get renewed understanding of what it feels like to make a difference from that vantage point–to agreeably take direction from another (who may never be your “superior” in a workplace setting). Shake yourself up once in a while…push the “city limits” of your comfort zone…it’s good for you, and, if you are in a position of official leadership, it may very well be good for your staff, too. As Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to that fork in the road, take it! If you go beyond your comfort zone and don’t like it, you can always go back, but just remember this…once you’ve visited the outer “territories” the excuse that you don’t know how to get there is removed forever.

“Leadership is discovering the company’s destiny and having the courage to follow it.”

Joe Jaworski, Head, Royal Dutch Shell scenario planning group,
and author, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership

Self-leadership, then, is discovering your own destiny–what you need to do for yourself and others–to move forward personally and professionally. Lead yourself with your wisdom and intuition; follow your lead with your actions and choices. Congratulate yourself upon graduation!

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