It's less of a mystery than you might think.
I remember a nursery rhyme I heard as a kid called "What Are Little Boys Made Of?" The lyrics I remember go something like this: "What are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails, That's what little boys are made of. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice, That's what little girls are made of."
According to Wikipedia, "the rhyme sometimes appears as part of a larger work called What Folks Are Made Of or What All the World Is Made Of. Other stanzas describe what babies, young men, young women, sailors, soldiers, nurses, fathers, mothers, old men, old women, and all folks are made of." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Are_Little_Boys_Made_Of%3F. You can find the full lyrics online -- though they weren't very helpful in answering my initial question.
Every person I have met has an opinion about what leaders are made of. I bet you could take out a sheet of paper right now and make a comprehensive list of the characteristics of an effective leader. You may have had the good fortune to work with a leader who exhibited the traits on your list.
There are four items on my list, and they build on each other:
How comfortable are you with who you are -- and who you're not? Do you love yourself? Self-love means taking care of your own needs and not sacrificing your well-being to please others. Self-love is something you are born with, but it's also something that needs nurturing to sustain. Like a machine on the shop floor needs regular maintenance, so does self-love. And if you get too far off your maintenance plan, it may need a total overhaul.
Loving yourself does not mean you think you're the smartest, most talented, and most beautiful person in the world. It's not narcissistic -- that's taking it too far. Self-love also doesn't mean you never experience self-doubt. One manager I worked with called it "cool, humble confidence." You know you have worth -- and nothing to prove. To paraphrase Marianne Williamson, when you love yourself, you let your light shine, unconsciously giving other people permission to do the same.
It's important because before you can love other things or other people you need to love yourself for who you are. Self-love gives you the confidence and trust in yourself to live a better life.
Your self-image is a mental picture of yourself, both as a physical body and an individual. It's who you think you are. Your self-image is created over time as a result of your experiences. In other words, you are a product of your past. We seek to make meaning of our experiences as a way to keep ourselves safe -- physically, emotionally, even socially. We also use it as feedback, as a way to learn about ourselves and who we want to be. All these pieces come together over time to make up our self-image.
The goal is not to think too highly or too lowly of yourself, but instead, to think rightly. If you think too highly of yourself, overestimating your abilities, you'll live in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Think too lowly of yourself, underestimating your worth, you'll miss out on opportunities out of fear of failure. The best way to face those fears is with a healthier sense of self.
Self-image is important because how we think about ourselves affects how we feel about ourselves -- and how we interact with others and the world around us. We behave with relentless consistency in alignment with how we think about ourselves, or in other words, who we think we are. Like self-love, our self-image is something that needs regular attention & maintenance. The way you see yourself, your sense of identity, directs you in every situation, and impacts every decision you make.
Great leaders know how to lead when they're in charge because they've been leading long before they were ever given authority over others. Leading others well begins with leading yourself well. Self-leadership is something anyone can learn, but not as easy as it sounds. When you practice self-leadership, you are able to set goals that are aligned with your purpose & vision, and influence yourself to consistently achieve them.
Goal setting is a process designed to bring more of what is inside of you out. Sometimes what comes out is our best; sometimes it's not. When you set goals, you're bound to discover some obstacles along your path to achievement. Some of the most difficult obstacles will come from inside of you. You see, goals have this way of bringing up stuff that needs to be healed. Change happens from inside out. As you work to achieve your goals you continually build strength in character, but also feel vulnerable, exposed, and uncomfortable. It takes conviction and courage to push through the discomfort -- to get comfortable being uncomfortable -- and keep going.
Integrity, purpose, resilience, fortitude, and resolve: these are just some of the character traits that come with self-leadership mastery. When you lead yourself with vision and purpose, you are well on your way to being able to lead others.
4. Formal leadership.
The most important role of a formal leader is to develop a high performing team -- to align the team around a vision and help them achieve it. People who practice self-leadership have experience creating a personal vision and working to achieve it. In pursuit of their own goals, they've become familiar with the process of change -- how it works from the inside out. And as a result, they're better prepared to lead others through the process -- to lead by example: human-centered, results-driven leadership.
The maintenance here is self-awareness -- an ongoing assessment of intent and impact, with feedback from followers and other leaders.
Self-love, self-image, self-leadership, and formal leadership: four great examples of continuous improvement in action. Only in this case, it's personal. And like lean, six-sigma, and other CI systems, leader development is also a system -- with tools, structure, and process to support desired behavior, and complete with human nature and resistance to change. It's a system that can be learned, practiced, and taught from leader to leader. It starts with self-love -- loving yourself enough to inspire others to play big in the world.
Photo used with permission by 123rf.com.