Learning to lead myself – a lifelong journey

Last week I found myself worn down and irritated. I was short on sleep. I had just flown to a new time zone. I had a cold and I was running a rather high fever. I had just completed three long, intense work days. And here I was, in the early morning, wishing to check out of my hotel to get to my first meeting of the day … and there was no one at reception. When the clerk finally arrived I was not particularly friendly. I wasn’t directly rude, but I was short and perhaps a bit snide. Not proud of it. Not proud at all, and it is mildly embarrassing to share this in public.

Why did I react that way? Or – slightly different question – why did I act that way? Some empathetic readers might say “it is only natural”, but that is weak consolation. That which is “natural” is often not so inspiring. This is not the way I wish to be. I know that I am not alone here. And it is not a new problem – it cannot, for example, be put down to jet lag. The Apostle Paul says: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Letter to the Romans, 7, 19). And Paul was not an evil man. He lived for others and performed great sacrifices.

Long before Paul, Confucius emphasized that leading others starts with leading oneself: “If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are incorrect, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed” (Huang 134)”. Confucius highlighted the duties of a leader by explaining the proper way to think, act, and make decisions in government positions. Qualities such as continual learning, frugality, humility, confidence, commitment, and loyalty are all examples found within his teachings that provide a framework for leadership. And note that these qualities – continual learning, frugality, humility, confidence, commitment, and loyalty – are primarily about self-leadership.

I have just been re-reading Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It sets a very high bar for self-leadership. I am inspired, humbled and strongly motivated to double my efforts to deepen self-awareness and strengthen self-leadership.

[Very briefly, for those not familiar with the book, it conveys the reflections of an Austrian psychiatrist who was interned in a series of four concentration camps during World War II and survived to tell the story – in spite of odds of surviving that were only 1:28. In his book he shares impression of daily life, while emphasizing the psychological aspects of living in concentration camp with people dying around you every day].

We should probably all (re-) read Frankl’s book every couple of years. I used my pen and annotated my copy heavily while reading. Let me share a couple of passages that struck me.

“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”

“[…] do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? […] The experience of camp life show that man does have a choice of action There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.”

In this light, my less-than-inspiring behavior with the hotel clerk is embarrassing. The combination of jetlag, mild sleep deprivation and fever becomes nothing when held up against the suffering in the concentration camp. So it is abundantly clear that I still have a lot of work to do on self-awareness and self-leadership. My sense is that most of us do.

That makes it very meaningful to explore these. In this context, we are all learners. Our key role as leaders is not to “teach” but to create a safe arena, hold the space, role-model vulnerability, invite reflection, ask insightful questions, encourage exploration, and celebrate sharing. Perhaps once in a while we can share an authentic example from our own journey.

Leadership of others starts with self-leadership. And achieving inspiring self-leadership is a life-long journey. So let us encourage and support one another as leaders as we pursue the quest. And let us celebrate together when we make progress. You could do worse than (re-) read Frankl’s book.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.