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Can Leadership Be Learned? Can You Teach Yourself?

November 3, 2010

Can Leadership Be Learned? Can You Teach Yourself?

Yes . . . and Yes! We have the ability to develop leadership skills that can help us live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. While having a mentor or coach is helpful, I believe with the right guidance and resources we can teach ourselves to become effective leaders in the area that matters most — leading our own lives. Leadership talent among us may vary, however if you are reading this you have the ability to lead yourself. I call this Life Leadership.

Life Leadership involves taking initiative to guide your life and activities toward achieving your vision, and in the process finding personal fulfillment and meaning. It involves transforming your vision and purpose into reality.

Before we explore how to do this, ask yourself two questions.

Are you a leader of yourself? Are you leading your life or managing it? Leading involves taking your life to a new place and creating a new future. Managing is mostly about maintaining what is and making the most of it. Leadership is future focused. Managing is more present focused, although not exclusively.

Inspiring leaders guide themselves effectively. Whether you are a leader of many of just of yourself, five overarching leadership principles can make your life and work an inspiration to others as you build a fulfilling future. Inspiring leaders are models of the principles they believe in and expect of others. Whether you are or aspire to be a leader of others, or prefer to work on an individual basis, leading yourself effectively can make a huge difference in your success. In my experience, most people do not think of “leading themselves.” However, I believe that is a key step toward living a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Experience is a great teacher, as we learn from our mistakes and successes. The key is extracting the most valuable lessons and applying them. To help on your journey, here are five important Life Leadership principles and related actions for making them real in your life.

1. Define yourself by what you are, your passion, and what you want to be.

  • Ground yourself in today’s realities while being future oriented – and incorporating your aspirations and dreams into who you are now.
    • Find and pursue your passion and the possibilities it generates
    • Define yourself (and/or your organization) by what you are . . . rather than what you are not
    • Make defining (if sometimes difficult) choices to concentrate energy on your primary objectives
    • Balance belief in yourself with humility
    • Live your values and demonstrate strength of character

2. Invest in relationships and develop others.

  • Establish and build positive relationships – with others in your life and endeavor, including those closest you you, co-workers, customers/members, suppliers, other organizations, partners, and passers-by.
    • Foster teamwork and partnerships – and be a great partner and team player
    • Surround yourself with great talent, then further develop and empower it
    • Engage others and generate commitment
    • Be magnanimous
    • Build trust
    • “Pay it forward”
    • Nurture relationships – they are among your most valuable assets

3. Put the best interests of others and the goals you are striving to achieve above your own.

  • Subordinate self-interest to the needs of others and the endeavor or cause.
    • Help others succeed and fulfill their dreams
    • Coach for success. Offer positive and constructive feedback
    • Build and extend trust
    • Develop the next generation of leaders
    • Honor others: Credit the contributions of others more than your own

4. Emulate your vision.

  • As a Life Leader, once you know your vision, make the process of achieving it mirror the desired outcome – both in what you do and how you do it – inside and outside.
  • Model the values you espouse and encourage others to as well; behavior change precedes attitude change.
  • Align your behavior to model your vision and values
  • Become a catalyst of the process – so it is dynamic, builds momentum, becomes a robust part of the culture in which you live and/or work, and reinforces performance expectations

5. Believe the “impossible” is possible.

  • Set goals. Break down big challenges into pieces and tackle one step at a time – keeping your objectives in mind.
  • Develop and implement a focused strategy.
  • Challenge conventional thinking and established paradigms
  • Encourage and apply ingenuity to develop new and innovative ideas and solutions
  • Take smart risks to achieve objectives – and to leapfrog ahead
  • Persist
  • Think positively – generate energy, enthusiasm, drive, and determination
  • Have fun in tackling the “impossible.”  (Fun is contagious.)

If you have other practices that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them and share them.

Naturally, each of us will be stronger in some of these areas than others. You need not excel in all of them. By practicing and developing skills for as many as possible or appropriate, you can become a better leader of our own life and, if you choose, a leader of others. By leading yourself to be a model and inspiration for others, you create a gratifying life for yourself. In the process you build trust, credibility and loyalty.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in “What’s Leadership? What’s Values-Guided Leadership?”

We post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The topic on Friday will be “Is There a Key to Overcoming Adversity?”

Steve Weitzenkorn

Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D., is a learning innovator, organizational advisor, experienced facilitator, and lead author of Find-Fulfill-Flourish: Discover Your Purpose with LifePath GPS – a book, tool kit, and workshop series focused on guiding people toward more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2010 9:06 am

    There are some wonderful points and great information in your post here! Do you often find as I do so much confusion about the difference between a leader, a manager and a dictator?

    Your comment on leading yourself is so dead on!

    Great post, thanks!

    keep well,

    • November 3, 2010 9:29 am

      Great to hear from you again.

      I have found that people blur the distinction between a leader and manager and often use the word interchangeably. Not so much for dictator. Most people I have worked with understand that a dictator is an authoritarian ruler or leader. Although I have heard “Theory X” managers referred to as dictators. On a humorous note, I’ve also consulted with companies where employees refer to the corporate headquarters as The Kremlin and to top management as the “Gang of Five.”

  2. November 3, 2010 12:32 pm

    Very accurate points of being a leader. Personally – I believe to learn ‘Leadership’ one needs to be hungry for experience. Experience (good or bad) is key – this build up a character and the habit (of most importance) to think – reflect – then learn to improve.

    Totally agree with the points made, and could not have been put any better. Thank you for sharing this information.

    • November 3, 2010 12:48 pm

      It’s great to receive your feedback and hear from you again. I agree with your point about experience and the desire to be “hungry” for it. I believe that we develop our own wisdom though our life experiences. And the more we have the better, which helps us become stronger leaders.

      I posted on this topic about a month ago, called “Acquiring Wisdom from the Lessons of Life.” You may find it of interest:

      My best,

      • November 3, 2010 3:39 pm

        Steve – thank you for providing additional information – what you write about just draws me right into it – what I refer to as ‘intellectual emotion’

  3. Scott Cullen permalink
    September 29, 2011 5:51 am

    The way I remember the difference between a Leader and a Manager is to think of a football match, where you have a coach on the side line and the referee in the middle. Which is the manager and which is the leader?
    The coach is the leader; they can take a step back, access what’s working and what isn’t working and make changes to the direction of the team. They provide coaching and feedback to support the development of the team and the individuals within it.
    The Referee is in the middle of it, dealing with the day to day running of process and procedures and making sure compliance is upheld.
    That’s how I remember it anyway.


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