It’s Not About You

A Guest Post by Thomas E. Meyer

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” John Maxwell

When case studies focusing on ‘what right looks like’ hold a monopoly on leader development reading, it creates a void. This vacuum is most felt by those young leaders who haven’t personally seen or experienced ‘what right looks like;’ thinking they can only learn from those who epitomize good leadership. This is not to say learning from and working for good leaders isn’t enjoyable — it is massively energizing and sustaining. But, those young Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers who are not as blessed early in their career are not flapping in the wind and lacking an example they can learn from. The visceral imprint of witnessing and experiencing bad leadership can leave lasting and valuable lessons of what NOT to do. Disclaimer — most leaders are not “good” or “bad” but rather a compilation of traits open to objective and subjective analysis. We are human and all make mistakes; emulate the good lessons you learn and intentionally avoid repeating the mistakes or gaffes you witness.

What can we learn from experiences inside a leadership deficit?

Poor leadership lacks a fundamental truth — it is not about you. Leadership is not about ego, inflated self-worth, or personal advancement. Leadership is — at its base — about serving, developing, and caring for your organization and its people. Leadership is about the humble and tireless pursuit of excellence through the mobilization, care, and motivation of human capital.

Leadership is — with the tiniest singular exception — comprised entirely of others. Leaders who focus on themselves tend to be easily offended, transactional rather than transformational, and self-focused — “how does this affect me?”

But, doesn’t leadership, especially formal leadership within an organization, require a level of respect? Absolutely! However, the lesson here is two-fold:

  1. You have to earn respect for who YOU are as a person. It is not something you can effectively demand. Genuine and deep respect is not something that comes with the title. And, it cannot be won through false pretense or empty promises. Respect flows — most effectively — from authenticity, a dash of vulnerability, and congruent actions.
  2. Don’t take yourself so seriously, but take the position you hold with the utmost seriousness. I had a Battalion Commander who told me “What I, <insert name>, say may not mean much. But, to these Soldiers, what the ‘Battalion Commander’ says means a lot.” In an organization where the executive leader — whether it be CEO or Commander — holds the authority to drastically change the lives of followers, the office they hold must be treated with a measure of respect. Most importantly, the leader him/herself must act in a manner that deserves that level of respect. The leader must respect the office he or she holds. Be warned, this requires intentional practice in humility; as Roman Conquerors had whispered in their ear upon return from triumph in battle — all glory is fleeting.

“Is the boss happy?”

How many times have you heard someone in your organization ask, “is the boss happy?” These words are usually uttered with timidity and a passive tone of voice. It is a question born of organizations that revolve around the emotions of the leader — usually the negative emotions. Organizations serve as a mirror of their leaders; this is to say an organization’s character and culture usually reflect those of its leadership. When the leader is either selfish or emotionally unaware, both of which are inexcusable in leadership, their inconsistency breeds uneasiness amongst followers.

This question focuses on the emotional state of their leader rather than on the purpose, vision, and mission of the organization. It is an unfortunate waste of organizational energy. Teams that need focus on their leader’s emotions and ego, fail to demonstrate proper organizational priorities.

Are leaders not allowed to be emotional and passionate? Of course they are; without passion and emotion one would be left to wonder why you are leading in the first place. Emotionally unintelligent leaders can teach us two important lessons:

  1. Leaders manage their emotions. This is not to say bad things won’t happen or that you won’t have a day where you just don’t want to get out of bed. Leaders are charged to put that behind them and place the service of the organization above themselves. Understanding your emotions, their effect on your actions, and their effect on the organization, are absolutely critical to managing emotions. The emotional, physical, or mental hardships you face personally CANNOT be allowed to affect those you lead. Identify your close personal counsel — your confidants — and use them to both unload to as well as keep you accountable. Asking ‘is the boss happy?’ is a waste of time and organizational energy. Instead, organizations should ask ‘are we in relentless pursuit of our purpose and vision?’
  2. Passion is a double-edged sword. The word passion is derived from a Greek verb meaning ‘to suffer.’ Passion can be your greatest strength and greatest weakness all at the same time. Passionate leadership can drive action and motivate followers — as the saying goes ‘followers don’t care what you know until they know you care.’ But, passion can also manifest in anger or detrimental outburst. The answer is not getting rid of your emotions, it is to control them.

Leadership is not about you. Do not do it for yourself and do not take yourself so seriously. Earn respect for you as a person, but expect respect for the office you hold — and act in a way that deserves respect. Don’t make your followers wonder, ask, or even care if you are ‘happy,’ because it’s NOT about you.

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