Managing Yourself – Step 8: Becoming a Real Leader

This GovLoop series on “Managing Yourself” provides readers with the right skills, tools and mindset to be proactive about their development and as a way to thrive and succeed, both professionally and personally. Thus far, we’ve covered “Knowing Thyself,” “Goal Setting,” “Time Management,” “Executive Presence,” “Effective Networking,” “Developing Charm,” and “Diversifying Your Skillset.” Our post this week is the next step in your roadmap for success: becoming a real leader.

Excellent Sheep?

There is a lot of focus these days on cultivating leadership – from undergraduate college classrooms to emerging leader programs in the workplace – everyone seems to be in on it. But what effect are all these opportunities having on the world? Are we seeing a real rate of return on all this investment? Many people think not.

Author William Deresiewicz is one of these people. In his book, “Excellent Sheep,” he proffers the idea that our modern concepts of leadership are all wrong. What we’re doing, he asserts, is conflating leadership with success: they’re not the same thing. Whereas leadership at one time meant duty, honor and sacrifice for others (think JFK’s speech), we’re now saying that it means position, power and entitlement (what we think of as success). This conflation is largely driven via educational institutions and it comes with real consequences.

What we get as a result of this “perversion,” is a cohort of people who simply know how to please others, cross “t’s” and dot “i’s,” and never take any course of action that might jeopardize their career trajectory. These people are great at jumping through hoops (that other people set for them). They’ve never taken a risk (thus no losses on record – no real wins either). And they’ve never had an original thought. They’re “excellent sheep.”

Real Leadership

If we were to stop and think about it, the good leaders we look up to weren’t always successful. In fact, many of them failed miserably at times (George Washington won very few battles, Abraham Lincoln lost the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Winston Churchill was voted out of office multiple times). What binds all the great leaders together, though, is their vision, service, courage, continual learning, responsibility and perseverance.

Forbes published a list of the 100 Best Quotes on Leadership. Although all of them are applicable to real leadership in some way, the five below are arguably the most pertinent:

Number 5

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max DePree

Number 39

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” – Douglas MacArthur

Number 58

“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” – Herbert Swope

Number 68

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

Number 92

“A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.” – John Maxwell

Forging Real Leadership

Regardless of whether you totally agree with Mr. Deresiewicz’s assertions or not, it’s still critical to check ourselves against becoming an “excellent sheep.” To do so, we need to be aware of who we are currently while emulating the values we see in the world’s greatest leaders. The best way to do this is to ask ourselves some simple questions.

Check Yourself:

1. Have I ever failed? If not, you may not be trying – “There is no effort without error and shortcoming.” – Teddy Roosevelt

2. Do I push myself just beyond my comfort zone? If not, you might not be gritty – “Gritty people train at the edge of their comfort zone.” – Angela Duckworth

3. Do I know my own weaknesses? If not, you may not be self-aware – “Without self-awareness we are as babies in the cradles.” – Virginia Woolf

4. Do I think critically and have original thoughts? If not, you may be guilty of groupthink – “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain

(note: these are only four potential suggestions, but you get the idea)

The Takeaway

Leadership and success are not the same thing. Success, especially today, means achievement, position, power and privilege. Leadership in the real world, though, is messy, uncomfortable and often contentious. While good leaders achieve success, often they do not. To become real leaders ourselves, we have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to fail sometimes and be courageous enough to take a stand.

The alternative is to wind up an “excellent sheep,” or what Teddy Roosevelt calls “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory, nor defeat.”

Next Week – Step 10: Managing Up

Brian Baskerville is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Alexa McKenna

Brian, I think you bring up a great point about success vs. leadership and it’s a good distinction to keep in mind for all aspiring leaders.