What You'll Learn on the Journey to Becoming a Great Leader
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What You’ll Learn on the Journey to Becoming a Great Leader

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We’re told as kids that we can be whatever we want when we grow up, and that with the right amount of work and ambition, the possibilities are endless.

Me? I didn’t want to be a great leader. I wanted to be a wrestler. Not the Olympic kind, but like “Macho Man” Randy Savage. At the same time, I remember telling my parents that I also wanted to work at McDonald’s. To me, there was nothing better than being a professional wrestler who also worked at McDonald’s. You could be on TV one second and eating Happy Meals the next.

When you’re allowed to dream and be whatever you want to be, you’re unfamiliar with fear. It doesn’t have a hold on you; it doesn’t influence how you think. But as you grow up and are torn from your childhood beliefs, fear takes on a bigger meaning—both in small, subtle ways and in big, stunting moments. Fear can be both humbling and painful, spectacular and binding, to those who cannot control it.

This is nothing to be embarrassed about. We’re all fearful in some way. It’s how we cope and control this fear that molds some into leaders and some into followers. For me, there is no option. I wish to take the road to leadership.

But I’m not a great leader right now, and I need to find out why.

The journey to leadership 1

Why Your Leadership Method Fails

We’re trained in school to listen to and learn from others, then are encouraged to form our own beliefs. These views are often rooted partially in fact, while the rest comes from the gut.

I’m a firm believer that belief in one’s self can be the most powerful professional tool you wield. At the same time, if you trust only your own ideas, you stop listening to others and fall deeper into a state of egotism.

Saul Alinksy, generally considered the founder of modern community organizing, is quoted as famously saying:

“We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be.”

In his book Rules for Radicals, Alinksy writes:

“Egotism is mainly a defensive reaction of feelings of personal inadequacy.”

In the pursuit of leadership, it’s common to get tripped up by ego. After spending years insulating ourselves from fear—fear of not being the best at whatever we do—we’re programmed to default to what we know. Any attempt at disproving our beliefs is viewed as a direct attack to our ego.

In management, a team member’s accidental misstep can feel like a left hook to your stomach. And for those who aspire to become better leaders but who are also governed by fear, the natural reaction is to take greater control of the work at hand by cutting out those who “just don’t get it.”

The Einstellung Effect describes this better:

A mechanized state of mind, often called a problem-solving set, that refers to a person’s predisposition to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though “better” or more appropriate methods of solving the problem exist.

Essentially, we go back to what feels right when faced with fear, literally blinding us from seeing alternative solutions to wider problems.

The Journey 2

How to Fight Your Ego Every Day

Over the course of writing this article, I’ve read a lot about fear. One of my favorite quotes comes from Cus D’Amato, Mike Tyson’s former trainer. D’Amato says:

“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you.”

Fear is the product of your ego. To be a better leader, you must combat your ego every day.

I talked to a few people whom I admire and respect about leadership, asking, “What makes a great leader?” Their answers:

  • “Know when to listen and when to respond.” —Brian Honigman, marketing consultant and speaker (@BrianHonigman)
  • “The ability to delegate, garner trust, maintain a positive morale, and take responsibility for his or her actions and those of his or her team. Also, open-mindedness and flexibility.” —Ally Greer, director of community and content at Scoop.It (@AllyGreer)
  • “You should be able to retire to an island and let your team run the show. Building trust by teaching, allowing your team to grow, and giving them real responsibility.” —Charity Stebbins, senior content strategist at Conductor (@CharityStebbins)
  • “Knowing how to communicate feedback, whether it’s good, bad, or ugly.” —Ginny Torok, digital marketing manager at Traackr (@GinnyTorok)
  • “The ability to collaborate, motivate, and drive.” —Christine Warner, senior content strategist at Skyword (@CVWarner)
  • “Belief inspires greatness in others.” —H.L. Ray, senior director of business development and entertainment at Gilt (@HLRay3)
  • “It all starts from ‘example.’ Keep it in the forefront every day; forgive yourself when you are imperfect.” —Brian Patrick Murphy, fitness and life coach (@OleMissMurph)
  • “Don’t dodge hard stuff—business or personal.” —Sarah Chubb, principal at Sarah Chubb Consulting (@sarahchubb)

The Journey 3

What Makes a Great Leader

Pretty solid advice from folks restricted to 140 characters or less, no? Their advice led to these five themes, which show what every leader must embody and showcase in his or her management style and work:

  1. Know when to listen and when to respond. Give your team time to learn and grow. Listen to their ideas and allow them to come to their own conclusions. Respond when they run off course.
  2. Garner trust. To get the best work out of your team, you need to foster trust among team members. It’s not just about getting people to trust you; you must also learn to trust your staff.
  3. Learn how to deliver feedback. When you’re reviewing work that seems subpar and you’re compelled to react with disappointment, take a moment to clear your head. Are you responding with helpful advice, or are you letting your ego get the best of you?
  4. Believe in yourself. At the core, you must believe in yourself and the work you’re doing. As H.L. Ray said above, “Belief inspires greatness in others.”
  5. Forgive yourself and others. Leading is hard, and you won’t make the right decision every time. Learn to forgive yourself when you’re imperfect, and don’t dodge the hard stuff like reaching out to team members and asking for their forgiveness.

You can still be whatever you want to be, but to reach your goals, you have to learn to lead, not follow. These tips will help you work better with others while simultaneously helping you overcome the most crippling obstacle between you and success: Fear.

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