Leadership.  It’s a word that evokes feelings, images, traits, behaviors, emotions, ideas, memories.  It’s a word that can mean many things, each different depending on an individual or situation. 

It can be all encompassing or boiled down to a single characteristic. 

We have news of its personification – attempts, failures, triumphs and everything in between – zapped to us instantly. 

It’s taught in our most revered institutions to future chiefs of policy and industry.

But for all the attention leadership gets, it’s still elusive – in theory, and in practice.

Undertaking a review of prominent research and writing on the topic, my head was spinning at the sheer volume of books, articles, research reports, and perspectives. 

Where to start?

The more I read the more it felt like leadership’s meaning – what makes it good, bad and how to do it – those answers should be coming from me, not from a book or some business columnist espousing the 5 Things Successful CEO’s Do Before Breakfast.

Yes, theories, models, frameworks, lists, columns, and studies can all be insightful and helpful. But only so much as I’ve done the work to articulate what leadership means to me and only so much as they get me thinking about my mental model of leadership, not providing one for me.

With no basis clearly articulated on my own, I’m just consuming and regurgitating the ideas of others and have nothing to build on or work from that is mine.  I think that’s why we have so much literature on the subject, it’s a lot easier to slip into the current of a new, glossy arrangement of thoughts than it is to articulate meaning for yourself.

So I sit here arguing for the thing that most of us are challenged to do – the hard work of examining my own ideas on leadership, my experiences and my hopes as a leader.

But here’s the thing, if you want to be a good leader – this is where you have to start.  Not by picking up the latest best seller from well marketed ‘gurus’, not by getting an executive MBA, not by taking company-sponsored training.

It starts with you and crystallizing your own perspectives on leadership.  Without taking steps to interrogate your own beliefs about leadership and where they came from, you risk abdicating your right to lead with meaning and authenticity – to lead from your heart.

Of course, there’s a term for what I’m talking about, it’s called self-awareness. 

Here are 5 critical steps to becoming a self-aware leader, and building the critical foundation for meaningful leadership development:

  1. Consider your personal best leadership experience.  Recall a time when you were leading others and you had a successful outcome.  How did it feel? What made your leadership a success?  What was the impact? What lessons did you take away from that experience?

  2. Recall your best and worst experiences as a follower.  What did the leader do (or not do) make it what it was (think in terms of concrete behaviors vs. specific decisions made or other contextual factors)?  What did these experiences teach you?  What was the impact of the leaders’ behavior on business performance, on people?

  3. Articulate your most and least preferred leadership styles.  Forget what the ‘right’ styles are or how they’re defined by the experts.  How would you characterize your style when you are most comfortable and authentically you as a leader?  What about a style that most makes you uncomfortable, anxious or reluctant?  This may be tricky so to help you out, I’ve taken a crack at this myself.  My most preferred style is what I’d call ‘people focused and democratic’.  My least preferred style is what I’d call ‘demanding and retaliatory’.

  4. Write your leadership philosophy, capturing why you want to be a leader and the impact you’d like to have.  We can’t assume that everyone wants to be a leader – and if you’d rather follow or support – that’s great, it’s needed as much as leadership.  It is important to make this declaration though, especially in our hyper-competitive, up-up-up business culture.  Being in a leadership role does not necessarily equate to status or achievement.  Leadership has to be something that you want, and you need to have a good reason (one that carries meaning for you).

  5. Define the most critical behaviors for your leadership effectiveness.  There are some things you’re instinctively better at, and others that you’re not.  What are they?  Maybe you’ve taken a leadership strengths assessment or other profiler tool – what did it tell you?  What themes have emerged from recent performance reviews and how do those relate to leadership?  What are your emotional triggers and how do you handle stress, uncertainty, and risk?

There’s no shortcut or substitute for cultivating self-awareness through reflection, and it is a critical exercise if you are to become a transcendent leader – a leader who achieves beneficial impact both for their cause and for their people – through their leadership.

Instead of reaching for the latest literature, start with yourself and consider your own perspectives on leadership and what it means to you – only then can you begin to make sense of the leadership lessons of others. 

Neill Beurskens is Founder of This Fearless Life and creates profound change for incredible people looking to get more out of their life and work. To explore the possibilities of a life lived fearlessly visit www.thisfearlesslifecoaching.com