Leading Yourself Well

I resolve to be a leader that people will choose to follow because I lead myself well.

It’s been more than a decade since I first discovered Dee Hock’s wisdom in an article entitled “The Art of Chaordic Leadership.” The title alone caught my attention. What is “chaordic?”

Early in my career I had already experienced the reality that leadership in most organizations is dealing with chaos. Most of what I had learned about management was how to eliminate, control, or at least minimize the chaos. Hock had my attention but started his article out in an unusual way. He told the true and dramatic story of his experience rescuing a drowning calf on a stormy night.

Then he made the connection to a new breed of organizations in which chaos and order are harmoniously balanced. His personal example of leading in such a complex and adaptive organization was in creating and leading VISA. This confederation of banking entities and business owners blends both competition and cooperation to create a great whole than the sum of its parts.

Hock makes the case for leadership that is able to induce followership, not simply elicit compliance by force or economic incentives. I resonated with his statement that “In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led.” Ultimately, leadership is a gift of trust willingly bestowed by followers. It may be earned or forfeited, but true leadership is never a right that may be demanded of others.

Leadership is a gift of trust willingly bestowed by followers.

So, if leaders are only leaders because followers give them that privilege, what can a leader do to “earn” that right or prepare for that opportunity? Hock answers that question this way: “The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self: one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts.”

The way I rephrased and remember Hock’s definition is that my job as a leader is to “lead myself so well that others will want follow.”

It’s a pointed and painful reminder to me that others will choose whether or not I am a leader, not because that’s what my job description or title proclaims. John Maxwell captures that thought this way “If you think you are leading when no one is following, you’re simply taking a walk.”

I have to admit that I have taken a few walks in my day! I remember advocating loud and long for the Wisconsin District to bring a memorial (change to our Book of Discipline) to the 2000 General Conference that would reduce the number of General Superintendents from 3 to 1. Though far from being an expert, I am a student of leadership and my “not-so-humble” opinion was that our denomination was languishing due, in part, to the bureaucracy. I felt that there would be greater accountability and alignment with 1 GS than having our denomination led by committee.

I took the initiative and began to work the change through the legislative process. First, I brought the resolution to our district board and then on to the floor of our district conference. It passed. From our district conference, the resolution went to the General Board. It flopped. On the floor of the General Conference, we followed the procedural guidelines to bring it before the full assembly. It failed. And when it did, I learned a good lesson. Leadership is not about informing the process, but influencing the participants.

I had informed them of the merits, but I did not have the leadership credibility to overcome the reservoir of influence and goodwill that the other leaders in the room had accumulated by leading themselves well for many years.

Interestingly enough, it would be 12 years later that the General Conference voted to move from 3 General Superintendents to one. Humorously, at least to me, the memorial that passed was essentially the same resolution that the Wisconsin District had proposed in 2000 but, this time, it was carried forward by some of the same credible leaders who had not supported it a decade earlier.

I don’t know what role, if any, my advocacy may have played in the final passage. I do know that the lesson I learned from the process was invaluable. Here is the bottom line for me:

I will never lead others farther or better than I have led myself. So, I resolve to be a leader that people will choose to follow because I lead myself well.


“You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” ~General Dwight D. Eisenhower


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