If you want to be a better leader, there's no shortage on advice on how to improve. That advice details everything from what to wear to how to take care of yourself--that is, it's a summary of "correct" or necessary behaviors.

But maybe pouring through all that advice is the long way around.

Most leaders don't have leadership as a goal

In my experience, the best leaders actually don't have leadership on the brain. In fact, some of the most notable leaders of the past have been incredibly reluctant to lead at all. George Washington, the first president of America, is a good example, having written to Edward Rutledge that, in accepting the presidency, he had given up "all expectations of private happiness in this world."

In an article for Time, Rabbi David Wolpe notes the paradox of leaders who don't want to lead, citing famous religious examples such as Moses and the prophet Jeramiah. And Wolpe's explanation for the resistance is reasonable: "To doubt whether one can do a demanding job is to have a realistic sense of its magnitude." But Wolpe also critically observes that the humility that makes people hesitate is the same trait that ultimately helps them be effective once they have the reins.

The target most people miss

But if leaders aren't focused on leading, then what are they focused on? What's their goal?

Referencing Warren Bennis, Rob Ashghar might have summarized it best in his article for Forbes: "Most people who become good leaders don't set out to become leaders. They simply set out to become themselves, in an authentic manner. And they deploy every means at their disposal toward that end."

This, of course, requires you to ask what it means to become yourself in an authentic way. To me, that means bringing what you believe and want into alignment with what you do, which is a hallmark of unshakable integrity. It means having clearly defined values--and then standing for them.

And real leaders do this because they simply cannot stand to leave things as they are as a matter of principle, not because they are so power hungry or egotistical that they can't imagine a life without accolades, financial security or fame. They feel obligated to make a difference, and they gain confidence primarily from that sense of duty, rather than from any specific skill set, trait, or ability. Their mantra is not "I can", but rather, "I must".

The unknown protestor who faced a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for instance, believed it wasn't right for a government to gun down its people or deny basic freedoms and accountability.

Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, went to prison for years for trying to bring civil rights.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who revealed the Flint water crisis, moved forward with a commitment to the idea that every individual deserves good health.

Even leaders you might consider ethically questionable, such as Christopher Columbus, usually have a clear concept of what they want for themselves and the world.

So if you really want to lead and be better at it, the absolute best thing you can do is figure out exactly who you are. And guess what. That doesn't just mean sitting in your room doing mindfulness exercises or plotting your past (although those activities certainly have benefits). It means going out to connect with others, experiencing as much of the globe as you can, and learning with an unceasing drive for the big picture. It's this self-awareness and conviction that will allow you to respond, gain a loyal following and not quit when opportunity is at your door.

Published on: Jun 10, 2019
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