You lead others to their potential only by approaching yours
By Max Klein
All hell broke loose.
Someone had left a corner of their bed untucked. The Marine Corps drill instructors saw it as an accountability failure of all 73 of us recruits and proceeded to take every mattress, every footlocker, and every steel bed frame and pile it into a mountain in the centre of the barracks. It was Boot Camp and we were being taught the basics of attention to detail. Later, as we pulled the tornado pile of beds, blankets, and steel off the pile in an attempt to reorganise, I learned a valuable lesson —details matter. Oh, and make your damn bed! Everything you do is important. Attention to those little details is important. Because the little things you do add up to the leader you are.
This was reinforced in a speech to college graduates by retired Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Much is written about hard and soft leadership skills, but these things mostly address how you interact with those you lead, not what you do to lead yourself. Here are a few habits I’ve seen work over my 25 years studying and practicing leadership in military and corporate settings.
1. Practice Self-Discipline in the Details
Make that bed! Get up when your alarm goes off. Stick to that diet. Make yourself look as good as you can. Work out even when you’re tired. Make yourself do the hard things. All of this is easier said then done, I know, but start with the little easy details first then you’ll be able to work your way up. Self-discipline is the trailhead of the path to excellent leadership. I remember another fun time in boot camp where we were forced to stand at attention for a long time just to develop self-discipline. The sand fleas, which I’m sure the U.S. Government imported just for this purpose, climbed into our ears and noses and started chewing. This physical self-discipline translated into mental self-discipline because that’s what discipline is; mental superiority over physical circumstances.
Doing little things right makes big things easier to do right. “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”— Aristotle
2. Make Your Physical/Mental Health a Priority
It’s tough to take care of others if you haven’t taken care of yourself. Care for the caregiver they call it in health-service circles. This concept can be translated to self-care for the leader. If you know you need to work on your physical self, start that effort. That’s admired by those you lead who are looking on. I know it’s tough to seek help sometimes for mental health, but a leader does the tough things. I’m speaking from personal experience. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is ask for help with depression then stick with it, but it’s also one of the best things I ever did for me and my family. Just do it. Be a self-advocate for your physical and mental health. There’s no way you won’t become a better leader when you do. “
As a leader, the first person I need to lead is me. The first person that I should try to change is me.” — John C. Maxwell
3. Read Something About Leadership
You’re doing that now, congrats! Truly though, there’s a huge amount of solid information out there about how to be a better leader. One of the best leaders I ever met, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis said: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” A leader’s duty is to always be improving their leadership skills and general knowledge. The easiest way to do that besides practicing it or learning directly from others is by reading.
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” — Harry S Truman
4. Know Your Two P’s
Every morning I write down priorities for the day. I’m not a big “morning routine” person, but I keep a list of what I need to do and prioritise/tweak the list daily with my own method of highlights/etc. It clears my head and gives me direction. The second ‘P’ is purpose. I need to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing sometimes to maintain focus and sharp decision-making abilities. “OK, I’m not a big fan of my job today but this is what I have to do to be a decent employee,” I think. More importantly than that, I have people looking up to me as a leader or a parent so I need to be my best for them to bring out their best. And most importantly, I remind myself that I’m doing this job to make money for my family so I should do it well because they are my ultimate purpose. When I remind myself of my purpose and priorities, it helps me proceed in a deliberate direction and lead with more solid steps.
5. Give Your Brain a Workout With Any Weights
Your brain is like a muscle that atrophies when not used. Find a way to flex it. Even if you’re getting bored and in a routine, find a challenge. For me, that’s simply reading to keep it sharp. I also write to help my brain flex, challenge myself, and organise my thoughts. No matter what you do, find a way to flex your brain. Maybe like Stanley in the office, you like crossword puzzles. Go for it. Whatever you can do to sharpen your brain will only make you a better leader and better decision maker because you’ll be thinking more sharply and clearly.
6. Be a Hint Better Than Your ‘Yesterday Self’
How we stack up to others is irrelevant, but how we stack up to ourself from yesterday is of critical importance. If you can make small incremental improvements, you feel good because you are advancing. I don’t even mean great leaps forward but just like everything else living, you’re either growing or dying. This also means being better at whatever your job is, even slightly. Technical competence of your specialty is a critical leadership trait. Your job is to stay on the growing side of existence. You do this by evaluating yourself honestly, plugging the worst leaks first, then improving in small ways daily. Don’t be too hard on yourself about your speed in doing this though, just always stay on that growing side even if in very minute ways.
“It is necessary to try to surpass one’s self always: this occupation ought to last as long as life.”— Queen Christina of Sweden
7. Embrace Silence and Solitude for More Reflection
A leader needs time to be alone and think. General Mattis also said: “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection.”Many great leaders of the past like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln have attributed reflection in solitude to the successful completion of the most important events in their lives. A leader should be comfortable being alone to reflect. Embrace solitude for a while each day to for self and external reflection. This will make you a more self-aware and overall better leader.
“A leader has not only permission, but a responsibility, to seek out periods of solitude.”― Raymond M. Kethledge, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude
Stronger leadership starts with leading yourself. The best leaders I’ve ever met were great at leading themselves first or at least on the path to doing so. People looked up to them for this intangible sense of self-control and togetherness these above habits developed in them. Start to lead yourself today, even if just in small steps, so you can start to approach your potential. Because only then, when you are approaching your potential, can you lead others on the path to reaching theirs.