How to Lead Yourself and Others (Episode 9-39)
From knowing thyself, to leading thyself, to leading others
There is a great amount of leadership theories out there. This post is not about ruminating or dissecting these theories. What I will aim to do, is to dive deeper, especially, into the part that precedes any form of successful leadership of others. Namely, the ability to lead oneself.
As Mitch Leventhal, professor Professional Practice and Entrepreneurship at the University of Albany, State University of New York articulates during my talk with him about leadership; ‘most textbooks define leadership as the ability to influence others to achieve some kind of common goal’ (Leventhal, 2021). For most people, that might be what leadership means. However, I agree with Mitch that there is a fundamental other element to leadership, which is the inwardly directed aspect of leadership. The leadership of oneself. By definition, this is an imperfect practice. As, in reality, is everything. I appreciate Mitch for highlighting this element. The inner work on ourselves that precedes the good leadership of others, doesn’t have to be finished. We’re imperfect beings. However, the conscious effort of working on oneself enables us to be more understanding and empathetic of others, and thereby more effective in ultimately leading them.
‘Self-leadership is about understanding and interpreting your own impressions, and to react appropriately. To understand what is good, and what is not good’ (Leventhal, 2021). The ability to lead oneself is a precursor to the good leadership of others. Excellent leaders have done the work, and are doing the work, on themselves. Consequently, the common element to leadership, meta leadership, is self-leadership. (Leventhal, 2021). Therefore, in order for us to become good leaders to others, we need to first do the work on effectively and successfully leading ourselves. I’ll try to highlight some useful elements and concepts regarding this below for your benefit.
Leadership is universal
In spite of all the different approaches to leadership, one could actually argue that it is a very universal practice. The common elements of leadership are unanimous. They relate to the fundaments of human interactions. Traits such as: trusting; caring; listening; empowering; teaching; a willingness to learn; courage and bravery; being stable in times of setback, are all things we seek in our leaders. But also in our friends, loved ones, and people close to us. Leadership therefore is of course at the essence about human interactions. It was like this in ancient times and will continue to be so in the future. One could clearly argue that these universal principles of good leadership of oneself and others are also reflected in the cardinal virtues.
The four cardinal virtues, initially derived from Plato, recognized by the Stoics, and later adopted in Christian theology, form a virtue theory of ethics. They relate to human behavior and their interactions. They too very much relate to good leadership, both of oneself and others. Followers will recognize if their leaders consistently display these universal cardinal virtues:
Prudence: The ability to discern an appropriate course of action to be taken at the appropriate time;
Justice: The ability to express and apply fairness and righteousness;
Fortitude: Having the courage, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation;
Temperance: The practice of restraint and self-control, abstention, discretion, and tempering desires. Referred to as ‘Sōphrosynē’ by Plato, which translates to sound-mindedness, was considered by him as the most important virtue.
Accountability and daily practice
Self-leadership is about developing and cultivating good habits. Reflecting on your experiences, decisions, reactions, and learning from these reflections. This can be done through meditation, journaling, and contemplation. The goal here is not to make oneself wrong for his or her errors. Instead, the goal is to learn and improve. When having failed in something, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, take the learnings, and get back on the horse. This is our responsibility as a leader of both ourselves and others. It’s ourselves who are keeping us accountable. Our focus then should be on cultivating a continuous improvement habit, and not forgetting about the ultimate objective, which is to be a good a person as you can, lead yourself as effectively as you can, and have a successful, harmonious life with a good flow while doing the most good in your universe of family, friends, company, organization, and nation (Leventhal, 2021).
The story we tell about ourselves
An important element of our self-leadership in my view is the story we tell about ourselves to others, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and aren’t. Author David Grossmann refers to this as our primal story. Almost always, this story about ourselves is based on impactful past experiences. Through continued repetition and polishing of this story, it ends up determining our lives. However, in many cases, these old stories no longer serve us and merely provide a one-sided and outdated view on who we are. When I asked Mitch about this during our talk about leadership, he mentioned some very interesting points. Most importantly, he emphasized we are part of a process. We are becoming. We are in a continual process of trying to achieve excellence and being more fulfilled, at peace, whole, and actualized human beings (Leventhal, 2021). Our narrative therefore is not stagnant. It’s dynamic, and always changing. We’d very much benefit from acknowledging this fact and learn to continuously update our stories. In similar fashion, we need to keep updating the stories we tell ourselves about our abilities and inabilities. Let’s be aware and present for a moment and recognize and acknowledge how much we have actually grown and developed. We deserve for this to be seen.
Also, our narrative changes given the different situations we find ourselves in. ‘People view you based on the role you occupy in an organization, and not because of your experiences outside of that organization’ (Leventhal, 2021). Mitch advises to figure out a way to consciously expose those ‘outside’ experiences in order to move into new, better, more interesting, and more responsible roles (Leventhal, 2021). We can benefit tremendously from shining a light on those different parts of ourselves which sometimes remain unseen by others, and even ourselves. I’d warmly invite you, dear reader, to look at yourself and be curious to identify what part of you you have not seen, expressed or exposed. Then, by all means, bring them out into the light to be seen and heard.
Philosophy of leadership
Philosophy originally was intended to help people become wise. Know thyself. The first and foremost task that we all should fulfil is to learn about- and know ourselves. ‘Before you can accomplish your goals or lead people, you must control your subconscious and know yourself’ (Poscente, 2004). The next step after this, according to Mitch Leventhal is to lead thyself. (Leventhal, 2021). Once you better know and understand yourself, you’ll be better able to make the right decisions which take you in the right direction and thereby lead yourself successfully. From there, when you’ve learnt to become more effective and successful at leading yourself, you’ll become more effective and successful at leading others.
Leadership philosophy therefore starts with knowing oneself. We have to continuously examine our internal assumptions, continuously evaluating our impressions, and continuously making conscious choices such that our decisions are right most of the time. How we go about doing that, the process, that’s our philosophy of leadership (Leventhal, 2021). When we formulate our own leadership philosophy, we’re highlighting those elements and aspects that are important for us based on self-awareness and reflection. We’re shining light on how we make decisions and what we prioritize as important and how to achieve it in the most virtuous way. The leadership philosophy is the compass for our approach to leadership, both for leading ourselves and others. We can find inspiration and learning for our leadership philosophy by looking around us and identifying leaders that inspire. These do not have to be state leaders. It’s mostly the everyday leaders where we can find most inspiration, directly around us. ‘A leadership philosophy is essentially a belief system that guides your decision-making. It consists of your core principles, perspectives, and values. When you define what they are, and use them to shape a leadership philosophy statement, your behaviors and decisions will remain consistent’ (Carter, 2021).
Vince Poscente makes the metaphors of a ‘determined little ant as your conscious mind and a habit-driven elephant as your subconscious mind’ (Poscente, 2004). Most of our decisions are on autopilot, governed by the habit-driven elephant. Our subconscious mind runs the majority of our lives. However, these habitual choices and decisions put most people on safe, predictable, boring paths of mediocrity. Poscente suggests that ‘when you see glimpses of what you could become, heed those insights. Don’t revert to your old ways just because change is hard, and progress may be slow. With the right mind-set and determination – think of an ant’s diligence – you can overcome inertia and break through. The power within, aligned with the power of many, is equivalent to a tiny ant guiding a mighty elephant’ (Poscente, 2004). Vince Poscente suggests a five-step approach to leading yourself and others through change:
Clarify your vision – Recognize your fears and use them to propel you forward. Stay open to new ideas and potential opportunities. Describe your goals and attach emotional drivers to them to help provide you with motivation. Look for things that instill energy and inspiration which give life to your vision and help it come to reality;
Commit to cultivating positive dominant thoughts – It might take a long time to achieve your goal. It’s therefore important to stick with it. Fight the impulse to abandon your goals when the going gets tough. Instead, think about what life will be like when you reach your goal. But don’t think about goals in a future sense. Think and talk about it as though you’re already there to motivate both yourself and others and include gratitude of how far you’ve come into your thoughts, words, and actions;
Consistently focus on performance – Drive your performance by reminding yourself and your team of your aligned purpose and goals. Find certain ‘triggers’ to spark your memory and help you focus. Choose something that frequently – but unpredictably – occurs, to spark motivational emotions which help you stay on course towards your goals;
Strengthen confidence – Beware of negativity. When not careful, it can multiply into a cycle of increasingly negative thoughts. Learn to recognize destructive thoughts and stop them before they take hold and consume you. Replace bad thoughts with good ones. Break the sequence of negative thinking by returning to your vision and by focusing with gratitude on what progress you already made;
Control the response to any situation – The path to any worthy goal includes many challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. Prepare yourself for them. This is what the Stoics refer to as ‘premeditatio malorum’, or negative visualizations. See my post about calmness and equanimity to read more about this. It basically teaches to reflect on what could go wrong and think of the best ways to respond to these scenarios.
Courage and leadership
Whensoever we are leading ourselves, or others, we will always need courage to lead. ‘Courageous leadership is about utilizing all of our brain, character and spirit to advocate principles regardless of the odds, heedless of fear. Courage is a deep-seated, fundamental human competence that leverages our other abilities. It invokes within us our best selves’ (Lee and Elliott-Lee, 2006). Courageous leaders respect others in every situation. They focus their attention on other people. They encourage others and are not afraid to tackle problems head on. Courageous leadership, and the related communication is based on four points:
Communicate collegially: Respect other people and encourage them;
Listen actively with empathy: Observe other people’s posture, eye contact and tone of voice to find out what they feel when they are speaking;
Ask question on point: Use supportive, open questions to encourage discussion;
Relate respectfully: Find mutual solutions.
Finally, an important determinant to our ability to successfully lead ourselves and others is a lack of self-deception. ‘Self-deception actually determines one’s experience in every aspect of life. Self-deception blinds [us] to the true cause of problems, leaving [us] unable to find real solutions’ (The Arbinger Institute, 2018). When we act contrary to what we want to do, this is called an act of self-betrayal. When we betray ourselves, we begin to see the world in a way that justifies this self-betrayal. When we betray ourselves, we enter what The Arbinger Institute refers to as; ‘the box’. When you are in the box, you don’t see that you have a problem; you think others have the problem. No changes you try to make while in the box will work. You can only get out of the box, when you recognize that you’ve been in the box. To the extent we are self-deceived, our leadership is undermined at every turn. Self-deception blinds us to the true cause of problems, and once blind, all the ’solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse. That’s why self-deception is so central to leadership-because leadership is about making matters better (The Arbinger Institute, 2018).
Whenever you want to do something, you have only two choices: honor that desire, or betray yourself by not honoring the desire. If you betray yourself that sets in motion a series of events that take you through self-deception and into the box of distorted reality in this sequence (The Arbinger Institute, 2018):
An act contrary to what you want to do is called an act of ‘self-betrayal’.
When you betray yourself, you begin to see the world in a way that justifies your self-betrayal.
When you see a self-justifying world, your view of reality becomes distorted.
So, when you betray yourself, you enter ‘the box’.
Over time, certain boxes become characteristic of you, and you carry them with you.
By being in the box, you provoke others to be in the box.
In the box, everyone invites mutual mistreatment and obtains mutual justification. Thus, everyone colludes in giving each other reason to stay in the box.
When you are in the box, you do not recognize that you have a problem; you think others have a problem.
When you are in the box, you provoke others to behave badly toward you, and, in fact, you provoke problems in others. The box ‘provokes what you take as proof that you’re not the one with the problem!’
If anyone tries to correct the problem they see in you, you resist.
When you are in the box, and others are in the box, conflicts arise that undermine everyone’s objectives. None of these problems existed before each person suffered self-betrayal, and landed in the box of justification, self-deception, and problem-blindness.
Solve your self-betrayal problem and the rest of your ‘problems’ will ultimately vanish.
Resist self-betrayal and you won’t end up in the box in the first place.
I hope the above made some sense to you. In any case, I highly recommend reading the book Leadership and Self-Deception from The Arbinger Institute, it is highly recommended. When you are in the box, and others are in the box, conflicts arise that undermine everyone’s objectives. None of these problems existed before each person suffered self-betrayal, and landed in the box of justification, self-deception, and problem-blindness. Solve your self-betrayal problem and the rest of your ‘problems’ will ultimately vanish. Resist self-betrayal and you won’t end up in the box in the first place. The only thing that can get you out of the box, is recognizing that you’re in the box. Then you can change yourself, your attitudes and behavior. To stay out of the box, honor other people, see each one as a person, with needs, hopes, and worries as real and legitimate as your own (The Arbinger Institute, 2018).
Leadership is continuous learning
Finally, good leadership is about continuously learning. Learning about oneself and others, and about the interactions between people and what drives them. As I’m sure you know, these drivers are so diverse and multifaceted, that our learnings in this regard will lever end. Leadership therefore is a continuous practice. Mitch Leventhal, a professor teaching leadership with a very substantial track record in leadership positions, corrected me when calling him an expert in leadership. He referred to himself as at most a student of leadership, who attempts to practice leadership. I think this is a great example of a learning mindset and a reminder to keep learning, continuously.
To learn about self-leadership and leading others, I’ve talked to Mitch Leventhal, professor Professional Practice and Entrepreneurship at the University of Albany, State University of New York.
I’ve found Mitch through his work and efforts on Stoicism, but he’s also an expert in Leadership, International Education, and Entrepreneurship. Above all, I believe Mitch to be a very curious and multifaceted individual who taps from a wide range of experience and sources.
As there is no leadership of others without the ability to lead oneself first, this talk ended up focusing in majority on self-leadership. I found it a very interesting and edifying conversation and hope you will find it equally useful. Enjoy!
University of Albany profile of Mitch Leventhal: https://www.albany.edu/education/faculty/mitch-leventhal
Carter, Louis, 2021, Leadership Philosophy. https://louiscarter.com/leadership-philosophy/, accessed on September 4, 2021.
Lee, Gus, and Gus Lee and Elliott-Lee, Diane, 2006, Courage: The Backbone of Leadership. https://amzn.to/3zOengs
Plato, Republic. https://amzn.to/2WVInJ2
Poscente, Vince, 2004, The Ant and the Elephant. https://amzn.to/3kMKN4Q
Powell, Colin, and Koltz, Tony, 2012, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. https://amzn.to/2WUB2ZS
The Arbinger Institute, 2018, Leadership and Self-deception. https://amzn.to/3kMDQAM
Willink, Jocko, and Babin, Leif, 2017, Extreme Ownership. https://amzn.to/3tiCUrQ
Willink, Jocko, and Babin, Leif, 2018, The Dichotomy of Leadership. https://amzn.to/3kQQoY0
Young, Stephen, 2006, Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words. https://amzn.to/3BK37SO