Follow the Leader: Key Principles to Achieve Self-Leadership

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What passes for leadership guidance is often little more than lists of what we should and shouldn’t do, with a sprinkling of desirable skills, attitudes and aptitudes. And then, we’re told, if we relentlessly strive to be authentic and empathetic, “Voilà!” We’re leaders.

But this collective wisdom misses the point. As aspiring leaders, we must first learn to lead ourselves by controlling our emotions and impulses. And then we can lead others. Here are eight principles to help you achieve self-leadership:

1. Understand what you can control or change — and what you cannot. I’ve lost track of the hours I’ve spent trying to change other people. Take my first boss, for example, who micromanaged me. Clearly, I argued, he was blind to my obvious talent and ability. He needed to change! I deserved better! I told him how I felt, again and again. I expected him to change. He didn’t. I later realized this was not a situation I could control or change.

2. Save your energy. Time and energy spent trying to change things that cannot be changed is time and energy wasted. It’s far more productive to direct our energies where they can at least influence what’s happening. More important, when we’re busy trying to change other people, we’re not working on changing ourselves. Our own attitudes and behaviors are the only things we can control. 

3. Know what angers or negatively triggers you. Every day, we encounter people, places and circumstances. If we’re fortunate, then we will feel positively about most of them. But some will trigger dark thoughts, perhaps inappropriately. To become leaders, we must learn to recognize and control our own “stinking thinking” and the behaviors that come with it.

4. Accept responsibility for things that negatively trigger you. We can choose what triggers our emotions. No one makes us feel a certain way. Likewise, we can choose how we respond. No one else can. 

5. Identify your part in the trigger, and do what you can to address it. When we recognize our own role in our emotions and feelings, we accept responsibility for them. That’s not to say all anger is unjustified. But only by taking responsibility for our anger can we address its underlying causes and change how we respond to it. 

6. Admit you’re wrong as often and quickly as possible. Much as I’d like to think I’m right most of the time, I’m often wrong. Sometimes I stay stuck in thinking about why I was wrong. Other times, I question whether I was responsible for being wrong. But these responses only prolong the agony. To become leaders, we need to see the error of our own ways quickly, and then move on. 

7. Apologize when you’re wrong, without qualification. To paraphrase the Elton John song, “I’m sorry” seems to be the hardest words to say. They mean admitting we’ve made a mistake or a lapse in judgment, that something we’ve said or done has hurt someone. When we apologize, we proclaim our own imperfection. But in our zeal we might go too far and apologize for our foibles real and imagined, minor and major — or try to qualify or explain our apologies. In both instances, we undermine the intent of the original apology. The recipient wonders — rightfully so — whether our apology is sincere. When we apologize, we should simply say, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” And if we’re not sure whether our words or actions have hurt someone, we should ask.  

8. Cultivate a dynamic sense of gratitude. Keeping a list of what we’re grateful for challenges us to take stock of the good things in our lives. Doing so is especially important when we feel overwhelmed by negativity. And yet we can fall into dreadful routines while compiling our list — viewing it as just another task to complete, or repeating ourselves. As a result, our ardor for the exercise diminishes. Consider instead the concept of “dynamic gratitude,” which is a commitment to note what’s good in our lives — to isolate the beauty, joy and wonder. 

That said, pain, fear and loss are unavoidable in life. But these negative experiences will pass. The next moment, and the moment after that, will be different. We don’t have to stay stuck in ingratitude — or gratitude — for long. Everything will change, including our own perspectives. 


Indeed, embracing these principles takes effort. It’s difficult to change long-standing patterns of thinking and behavior. But if we’re meant to lead, we must first transform ourselves.


photo credit: malte mueller

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