The #1 Secret To Being A Successful Leader


There is no shortage of books and articles about leadership. According to Stephen Covey, there are 7 habits or principles that great leaders follow that make them effective leaders. Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller write in The Secret that “to lead is to serve.” Still others believe that top leaders are those with the most charisma or the greatest ability to influence and cast vision.

While these are all significant insights into leadership, I believe one important factor is often overlooked. If this one key component is not present in someone's life, then life-long success and satisfaction may never be achieved. That one characteristic is self-leadership.

In the book Self Leadership by Andrew Bryant, the trait is defined as “having a developed sense of who you are, what you can do, where you are going coupled with the ability to influence your communication, emotions and behavior on the way to getting there.” Another way the book phrases it is, “the process by which you influence yourself to achieve your objectives.” The key ingredients here are self-awareness and the maturity to take responsibility for your personal development, goals, and outcomes.

I believe this as an important characteristic to strive for not only in the corporate world, but in all areas of life. In fact, I believe it's so important that I've been reading a lot about it to fully understand what self-leadership looks like in our daily life.

Here are the three important components of effective self-leadership inspired by some brilliant writers and thinkers:

1. Self-leadership requires self-awareness.

Socrates said it best: “Know thyself.” It’s not merely an intellectual pursuit but a call to live out of our true selves. As Christian leaders, it is easy to get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent. Chasing the next project deadlines, writing the next message, planning the big event, or caring for those in our circle of influence. All of these are good and important things to be doing, but if we don’t know ourselves enough to know why we are doing them, then they can be empty. Anxiety can drive our behavior and create a lot of activity; however, that can be very unproductive or, worse, destructive. John Kotter writes about this in A Sense of Urgency. It is easy to confuse motion with progress, and when we don’t have the self-awareness of our core fears and vulnerabilities, we risk chasing fleeting symbols of success and not becoming the leader we are meant to be.

Feedback from others is one of the best ways to learn about yourself. Bill George says in True North, “Knowing yourself can be compared to peeling back the layers of an onion as you search for your true self. […] You find your blind spots and your vulnerabilities.” If you are open and willing to receive feedback, ask someone you trust how they experience you in the work place and in a casual setting. Ask them what reactions you have that come across as defensive or intimidating to others. Blind spots reveal weakness but ultimately offer places for growth if you are willing. A tool we use here in the Vanderbloemen office is the Insights test (or Leading From Your Strengths for ministry teams) which helps us understand our blind spots as an individual and how we can best communicate to our team members. Consider taking this test with your team so you can all enhance your self-awareness.

As Bill George writes, “One of the most difficult things in becoming self-aware is seeing ourselves as others see us.” It takes a tremendous amount of courage and humility, but the dividends paid are extremely high in the end.

2. Self-leadership requires living according to your values and priorities.

Covey addresses this important matter in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in Habit 3, called “Put first things first.” He discusses our independent will as human beings that make self-leadership possible: “It is the ability to make decisions and choices and to act in accordance with them.” Successful self-leaders are those who live according to their values. They know what to say “yes” to and have clarity on what to say “no” to.  They have effective personal management and know their priorities.

Dr. Henry Cloud also discusses this important point in The One Life Solution. He says, “The irony is that most people are so caught up in trying to control the things they cannot control—other people, circumstances, or outcomes—that in the process they lose control of themselves. And here is the real paradox. It is only when you do take control of yourself that you will begin to have significant influence on those other things: people, circumstances, and outcomes.”

3. Self-leadership requires taking personal responsibility for your development.

Self-leadership requires learning. We have all heard of the phrase “a born leader,” but the truth is there is no such thing as a leadership gene. In The Truth About Leadership, Kouzes and Posner state in truth number nine that “The Best Leaders Are The Best Learners.” Good leaders are always looking to improve not only those around them but most importantly themselves.

Development takes time, intentional planning, and risk taking. As George says in True North, “There is no such thing as an instant leader.” Leaders understand that failure is a vital part of the growth equation. It takes experimentation, observation, and a strong desire to excel to master new skills and achieve new goals.

Development is a process worth engaging in and requires openness to constructive feedback. Good leaders understand this principle and look for ways to receive feedback in order to better themselves. They realize every moment is an opportunity to receive coaching and they can learn from anyone at any time. No matter how good you are, leaders know that they can always improve. According to Ken Blanchard in Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager, you must challenge "assumed constraints" which limit your future growth potential. These assumptions, based on past experiences, can keep leaders from a growing and advancing. 

“Researchers Bob Eichinger, Mike Lombardo, and Dave Ulrich report that in their studies the single best predictor of future success in new and different managerial jobs is learning agility. ‘Learning agility,’ as they define it, ‘is the ability to reflect on experience and then engage in new behaviors based on those reflections.’ And they go on to say, ‘Learning agility requires self-confidence to honestly examine oneself, self awareness to seek feedback and suggestions, and self-discipline to engage in new behaviors’” (The Truth About Leadership). Here at Vanderbloemen, we believe agility is so important that we made it one of our values. We call it "ever-increasing agility," because simply being agile isn't enough. We must constantly be stretching ourselves to be more and more adaptable to meet the needs of the ever-changing world around us.

Remember that self-leadership is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes a lifetime of learning, investment, and reflection. Live each new day dedicated to your development, and you might just be surprised at where you end up.