The Best Kind of Leadership is Self-Leadership

I got bit by a dog this weekend.

When I knocked on the owner’s door, he verbally accosted me. Said it was my fault. I hadn’t heard so many F-bombs in a long time. Which, I guess, was sort of refreshing.

When I called the cops (because apparently that’s what you’re supposed to do when an animal removes a piece of your flesh), the officer asked me, “What do you want me to do about it?”

Then I talked to Animal Control. They asked me a series of questions, then thanked me. Before they hung up, I blurted out: “What am I supposed to do?” This had never happened to me before. I was scared. I didn’t want to have to think. I just needed direction.

They said, “That’s up to you.”

We are all looking for someone else to tell us what to do. Why is this?

Self Leadership
Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Passing the buck: 2 questions

Most people live their daily lives, trying to answer two questions:

  • Who’s the boss?
  • Who can I blame?

We humans have trouble accepting responsibility for our actions. So what do we do? We shift the blame from ourselves to others.

We don’t want responsibility, because we don’t like consequences.

We spend our days, giving permission to other people to lead. When it comes time to accept responsibility (or fault because someone screwed up), the blame doesn’t fall on us.

In other words, we sacrifice the honor of leading for the comfort of never having to be wrong. What a waste.

The harsh reality is that this is all an illusion. Because the truth is scary, something we’ve been avoiding for maybe our whole lives.

But every time we’re honest with ourselves, there it is, staring us in the face.

The answer to both questions is you

You are the boss. You are the one to blame. Until you start living like it, we are all screwed.

The world’s best leaders lead others because they first lead themselves. They lead not through position, but through example.

They manage their time well before ever calling out an employee for taking an extra-long lunch break.

They discipline themselves in communicating before ever asking someone else to reciprocate.

And one by one, they earn their followers. Through integrity.

Crisis and leadership

Shortly after the financial crisis, a BusinessWeek article from 2009 said the best leadership is management. An interesting thought. Not sure I agree. Here’s my thought:

When crises hit, we resort to hierarchical systems, because blame is easy to assign.

Think of the last time you had a fight with your spouse, a friend, even your boss. Wasn’t there something in you that wanted to pass the buck, something that made you want to avoid responsibility?

This is broken humanity at its finest — dodging blame and passing the buck.

When we enter times of crisis or war or panic, we begin to show our true colors. We just want someone to tell us what to do. We don’t want to be held responsible, so that later we can say, “This was never my idea.”

One simple, crazy solution

There is a solution to this problem that will bewilder some and frustrate others:

Take responsibility. For everything.

Start owning what other people don’t want to touch. Accept the blame that others pass around.

Do you know what will happen? People will respect you. They’ll admire you. Even begin to follow you.

I learned this when a team member of mine made a mistake that cost our organization trust with our constituents. I assumed full responsibility.

Sure, I didn’t write the copy. And sure, it happened while I was on vacation. But it was my team member who did it. I hired her. Ultimately, I was responsible.

I never had to fight for that person’s respect again.

I’ve seen the same thing with the leaders over me whom I respect. It’s all about humility and servanthood.

How does this apply to writing?

This is about more than writing, but as we’ve often seen, the lessons we learn about writing apply to life. And sometimes, vice versa. Here’s the rub for the writer who’s reading:

Until you figure out how to lead yourself, you will never write what you were meant to write.

For example, why haven’t you written that novel yet? Or started that blog? Why are you still not writing every day, in spite of knowing you should?

Do a series of excuses and blame-shifts rise up in you as you process these questions? Whose fault is it, really?

It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to start leading yourself.

For more on self-leadership, read these 12 rules.

What’s one story of self-leadership you can share? (It can be about you or someone else.) Share in the comments.

(Since so many of you asked, yes, I’m fine. The dog had received all its shots, so after some peroxide and a bandage, the bite healed up quite nicely. Thanks.)

52 thoughts on “The Best Kind of Leadership is Self-Leadership

  1. “I’m so busy”
    It’s the one thing I hear regularly from people across the board, regardless of age, occupations or whatever. It was my ‘go-to’ excuse for a long time. But when I started asking myself WHY, and HOW, I realized it was all about me and the choices I was making every day.
    I had to take ‘leadership’ in the area of my own schedule and totally overhaul my life. I had to take really good things not only off of my plate, but completely off of the table. I had to give up things like television to make room for things that would have deep impact. And I had to say YES to some things that scared the crap out of me. I’m still working on this. It’s not a quick overnight fix. But it is radically changing the way I see my place in the world. I don’t ever want to go back.

    1. Jenna, I went through the same thing. I was also “very busy” until I realized that I determined what I did with my time. So if I didn’t have time to do something, it was because I decided that it wasn’t as important as other things.
      I still struggle with that, but I avoid using the “I m so busy” failsafe response. I try to analyze my time and see what I can change. If I can’t make time, then that new thing isn’t as important as I thought.
      About writing, that’s something that triggered my last review in my time. Jeff convinced me that I had to write at least 30 minutes a day, so I am moving some stuff around to make sure I do that. And I am enjoying it very much!

  2. I hope there is a second part to this story where you finish your “dog bite” story.  You started this well, Jeff…but you didn’t finish it.  A reader responds better to the human interest in a tale rather than the rant.  Just saying…

  3. Dwindling personal responsibility and the idea proving others wrong in any way makes us right will be the death of us all.

    There is staggering possibility in stepping up to the plate, looking life straight in the eye, and swinging that bat. We will not always connect, we will get hit by a pitch or two, and we will wonder why we’re so into this baseball metaphor in what is our first comment on a new (to us) blog, but with each swing, we learn and we grow.

    I’m a gearhead. I’m very slowly converting the dusty, disassembled Mitsubishi in my garage into a proper stage rally race car. My rallyista friends tell me, “There are two kinds of people in rally; those who have rolled their cars and those who will.”

    Failure and blame are inevitable. The beauty of this post is the reminder we can choose to face them on our own terms.

  4. For me it would have to be when I stopped thinking of getting my book published by a traditional publisher and went ahead and self published. Hasn’t turned out too bad so far!

  5. Wow.  First of all… are you ok?  A dog bite that removes flesh would kinda traumatize me.

    Second of all…

    When I was in retail management, me and all the other managers would always complain about the same thing… 

    Too many employees waiting to be given more responsibility.  Um, stop waiting.  Take it.

    But, I guess that’s the difference between people that lead and people that follow.

  6. Jeff, good stuff.  Self-discipline is so hard…My story is losing weight.  30 pounds since February.  Learning to run even though I HATE to run.  Now, I plan to run my 4th 5K this weekend!  AND, like others have asked…how is the dof bite?

  7. Ow…that sounds really painful. I hope it heals quickly and it isn’t too serious…

    That being said, you’re right about shifting the blame. It isn’t until we really start taking responsibility and accept that it’s up to us to make a change that things start to happen. 

  8. Funny that I read this right after I just read a blog by Michael Hyatt on Why Everybody Should Run a Half Marathon which touched very briefly on self-leadership as well. 
    One of the ways I am practicing self leadership is by running and training for my third half marathon. I began running because my roommate was overzealous and in January 2010 declared that 2010 the year of marathons along with other “m” words as well. After she said marathons she suggested that we run a half marathon and I agreed. We began training a week later and by 3 weeks our group of 6 people that were training had whittled down to just myself. Though it would have been easier to just stop because everyone else did, I instead kept going (part of the reason being I am competitive even if only against myself). Now I am not a small girl but I’m getting there, but I kept up at it and now I’m on my third half marathon. I didn’t set out with the intention to lead or inspire. The only thing I wanted to accomplish was somehow cross that finish line even if it was at a crawl so I could say I didn’t give up but rather accomplished what I said I would. As a result however I have had so many family, friends, friends of friends and even strangers come to me and tell me how inspiring I have been to them. In fact a good ten people I know are now training for 5k’s, 10k’s and half marathons because they saw me accomplish it and now they want to too. 
    It’s really quite humbling to see what I intended only for personal discipline, gratification and yes maybe a little pride turn into a catalyst for others to get healthy and accomplish the thing that they have purposed in their heart.

  9. Dog bites smart! Are you okay?

    I’ll add one thing to your thoughts here. Being our own bosses (even as employees) empowers us to take charge of our own life, and therefore our own destiny. If we take responsibility for our work, work hard, and do a good job with joy, people forgive us when we say no to something extra that comes up. They already respect us for the good job we did with the things we committed to, but are okay when we refuse to commit to extra. Most of the time, anyway.

    But doing this requires taking responsiblity for the parameters in our lives. So, if you set the rule that you don’t work Sundays because it’s family day or God’s day, you’ll already have your answer when an employer asks if you can take on an extra assignment. “Ah, you know I would, but I can’t work Sunday.” Of course, as with anything, we always have to be ready for the consequences of setting a parameter that doesn’t work with others. Only set parameters you’re not willing to budge on, and be ready to accept a possible consequence.

  10. That was a great post, Jeff.  I enjoyed reading it and it’s the kick in the booty that I need to start writing, as opposed to revising, again.

  11. Three cheers and then some, Mr. Goins. Blame is a form of cowardice, a retreat from a person’s commitment to desires, hopes and dreams; an absorption of self-doubt; self-confidence replaced with envy. That said, however, feel free to blame the dog who bit you. Woof woof.

  12. Just last week I had to apologize to a manager of another department. I let his poor actions get the better of me. Suddenly the words I have spoken to my children 1000 times, “I can not let the actions of others dictate my behavior”

  13. Thank you for posting this! It drives me crazy how often blame shifting occurs today. People have the ability to create, decide, build, and fail. Instead too many people sit at home on their computers complaining about everyone else. 

    America thrived because of the belief that every person can make a dent in the world. We’re losing that belief today, and it is costing us too much.

  14. This is good stuff, Jeff. I tell my kids that if they don’t govern themselves someone else will have to govern them. You took it one step farther. I am going to retweet your post to all of my twitter pals and people in our church. Thanks.

  15. Well said and powerfully persuasive Jeff. In my work with student leaders, I am always encouraging them to lead the one person they can actually “make” do something: themselves.

    One’s example of doing things the right way is so powerful because it becomes the image in people’s minds when they wonder what doing it the right way looks like. Taking responsibility is the best way to motivate others to take responsibility as well.

  16. You’re right. We look to our gurus to guide us. We look to the experts to tell us what to do. But, as long as we know our options, and we lead from within, only we can have the wisdom to know what is right for us. We just have to choose which path to walk and walk it!

  17. Good thoughts here.  I have always tried to lead by example at work and in my home, but had not really thought about it in regards to writing.

  18. LOL 🙂 I would completely agree. One does not want to take the responsibility & be held responsible for the failures. But they also need to understand that great lessons can be learned from the failures.

  19. Hey, I’m teaching about self-leadership in our house church tonight! Funny you put this up on Facebook today. Self-leadership is the core of all leadership. We are all leaders. Some of us are just better than others. Self-leadership, or lack thereof, will always have a ripple effect – and that effect will be positive or negative depending on how you’re leading yourself. If you’re leading yourself well, you can’t help but have a good influence on others.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  20. This is great, Jeff. I just started writing more about Self-Leadership recently, so I googled the topic and was pleased to see a post of yours near the top of the results! Thank you for applying those self-leadership lessons to writing, that’s definitely a good reminder.

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