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To Lead Others, First Lead Yourself

By Dr. John C. Maxwell

Free Church Leader Teleconference

Article Highlights

Learning to lead yourself well is one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a leader.

The point of leading is not to cross the finish line first; it’s to take people across the finish line with you.

Leading yourself well means that you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability than others do.

During a Q&A session at a conference, someone asked, “What has been your greatest challenge as a leader?”

“Leading me!” I answered. “That has always been my greatest challenge as a leader.” Some in the audience were surprised by my response.  The more experienced leaders were not.  Like me, they could trace many of their failures to their own personal leadership mismanagement.  Isn’t that also true for you?  If I could kick the person responsible for my problems, I wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week!

 

Look in the Mirror

Learning to lead yourself well is one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a leader.  For almost forty years I’ve served others as a leader, and for more than two and a half decades of that time I was the senior pastor of a church.  My years working with people have taught me an important truth: people seldom see themselves realistically. Human nature seems to endow us with the ability to size up everybody in the world except ourselves. That’s why my book Winning with People begins with the Mirror Principle: “The first person we must examine is ourselves.” If you don’t look at yourself realistically, you will never understand where your personal difficulties are coming from.

Most people use two totally different sets of criteria for judging themselves and judging others. We tend to judge others according to their actions. It’s very cut-and-dried. However, we judge ourselves by our intentions. Even if we do the wrong thing, we let ourselves off the hook if we believe our intentions are good. That’s part of the reason we allow ourselves to make the same mistakes over and over again before we are willing to make real changes.

Take Action
How clearly do you see yourself? To get a more objective look at yourself, review your performance from the last year. List all of your major goals and objectives, then mark each as either “achieved” or “not achieved.” Now show the list to someone you know and respect, and tell the person you are evaluating a candidate for a job. Ask them what they think based on the “candidate’s” achievements and failures. How does that person’s evaluation jive with your own? This will tell you a lot about your self-perception.

 

Keys to Leading Yourself

Why is leading yourself well so important?  Because there is a lot riding on it.  God has given each of us things to do.  I want to complete them during my brief time here on earth, don’t you?  And I don’t want to fail because I wasn’t willing to put in the hard work when no one else was looking.  The Apostle Paul understood this.  In 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, he writes, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” In other words, Paul worked hard at leading himself so that he could effectively lead others.
 
If that is your goal, there are things you can do to improve your self-leadership.  Here are four. I have tried to practice them as a prerequisite for leading others:

  1. Learn Followership

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen remarked, “Civilization is always in danger when those who have never learned to obey are given the right to command.” Only a leader who has followed well knows how to lead others well. Good leadership requires an understanding of the world that followers live in. Connecting with your congregation and your staff becomes possible because you have walked in their shoes. You know what it means to be under authority and thus have a better sense of how authority should be exercised.

In contrast, leaders who have never followed well or submitted to authority tend to be prideful, unrealistic, rigid and autocratic. They lord their position and power over others.  Jesus warned against this (Matt 20:24).  No, instead we are to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). If we desire to make an impact, we must first learn to follow under the authority of others.

  1. Develop Self-Discipline

It’s said that one day, Frederick the Great of Prussia was walking on the outskirts of Berlin when he encountered a very old man walking ramrod-straight in the opposite direction.
“Who are you?” Frederick asked his subject.
“I am a king,” replied the old man.
“A king!” laughed Frederick. “Over what kingdom do you reign?”
“Over myself,” was the proud old man’s reply.

Each of us is “monarch” over our own lives. We are responsible for ruling our actions and decisions. To make consistently good decisions, to take the right action at the right time and to refrain from the wrong actions requires character and self-discipline. To do otherwise is to lose control of ourselves—to do or say things we regret, to miss opportunities we are given, to spend ourselves into debt. As Solomon remarked, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Prov 22:7).

When we are foolish, we want to conquer the world. When we are wise, we want to conquer ourselves. This begins when we do what we should, no matter how we feel about it.

  1. Practice Patience

Leaders are often impatient people.  The leaders I know look ahead, think ahead and want to move ahead. This can be good; being one step ahead makes you a leader. However, impatience can also lead to trouble.  Some of my greatest leadership gaffes have come because I tried to take a shortcut instead of respecting the leadership process.

Few worthwhile things in life come quickly. There is no such thing as instant greatness or instant maturity—not for you, and not for your staff or the members of your congregation. We are used to instant oatmeal, instant coffee and microwave popcorn. But becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight. Microwave leaders don’t have any staying power. Leadership is more of a Crock-Pot proposition. It takes time, but the end product is worth the wait.

Leaders need to remember that the point of leading is not to cross the finish line first; it’s to take people across the finish line with you. Isn’t this why God called us to ministry—for the sake of others?  God is in the people business, and so are we. 

If you are moving too fast, you must deliberately slow your pace.  Stay connected to your people, enlist them to help fulfill the vision, and motivate them to persevere. You can’t do this if you’re running too far ahead of your people.

Take Action
In which of the three preceding areas—followership, self-discipline, or patience—do you most need to grow? What new task or practice could you take on to develop in that area? Give yourself a concrete goal and a deadline. 

  1. Seek Accountability

Few things are more disheartening or harmful than seeing Christian leaders fail in their trust because of an ethical failure. People who lead themselves well know a secret: they cannot trust themselves. Good leaders know that power can be seductive, and they understand their own fallibility. To deny it is to put yourself in danger.

Over the years, I’ve read about many leaders who failed ethically in their leadership. Can you guess what they had in common? They all thought it could never happen to them. They had a false sense of security.
                                                                       
This was a sobering realization for me, and it led me to make two commitments that I hope you will make for your own sake, for the sake of your family, and for the sake of your church: First, I will not trust myself. Second, I will become accountable to others.

Accountability isn’t just the willingness to explain your actions to others. It begins long before we act. It starts with seeking and accepting advice from others. Most wrong actions come about because people are not held accountable early enough.

Take Action
How well do you take advice? Ask five to ten friends, colleagues and family members to evaluate you according to this scale:

  1. You don’t want advice.
  2. You don’t object to advice.
  3. You welcome advice.
  4. You actively seek advice.
  5. You often follow the advice given to you.

Average your scores. If you average is below a 4, you need to improve in this area. Begin enlisting others in your information-gathering process before you make decisions. If you are married, begin with your spouse.

 

A Higher Standard

Leading yourself well means that you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability than others do. Why? Because God holds you responsible not only for your own actions, but also for those of the people you lead. Leadership is a trust, not a right. For that reason, you must “fix” yourself earlier than others may be required to.

Thomas J. Watson, the former chairman of IBM, said, “Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.” Leaders receive very little fanfare for quietly leading themselves well day in and day out. Most people are unaware of the disciplines their leaders practice or the sacrifices they make outside of the spotlight.  However, they don’t do it for recognition;  they do it for results.  What leaders do day-to-day always pays off in the long run.  Success or failure isn’t an event, but a process.

The bottom line is that the smallest crowd you will ever lead is you—but it’s the most important one.  If you do that well, then you will earn the right to lead even bigger crowds.  And on the days that you find it difficult to lead yourself well and you’re tempted to give up, remember the Parable of the Minas.  To the servants who managed their affairs well, their master gave them greater leadership responsibilities; He put them in charge of cities (Luke 19:17).  What’s more, he told them, “Well done.” 

Lead yourself well, and God will reward your faithfulness.

 

This article is adapted from Dr. Maxwell’s newest book, Leadership Gold: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Leading.

 

Go For Gold is a companion volume offering inspiration to increase leadership impact.

Dr. John Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker and author who has sold over 16 million books. His organizations have trained more than two million leaders worldwide. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of INJOY Stewardship Services and the Catalyst pastors’ conference. Every year he speaks to Fortune 500 companies, international government leaders, and organizations as diverse as the United States Military Academy at West Point and the National Football League. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week best-selling author, Dr. Maxwell was one of 25 authors and artists named to Amazon.com's 10th Anniversary Hall of Fame. Three of his books, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader have each sold over a million copies. His most recent book, Leadership Gold, summarizes the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime of leading.

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